September 27, 2012

Fifty Shades of Crap?

This truly has no particular connection to my expat theme, whichever way you look at it. At least I hope not.

It does, however, have everything to do with writing. And writer's envy, I admit it. How can you not pay attention when the whole world is talking about this book, or trilogy rather, that women all over the planet - and more than a few men, I would hazard a guess - are devouring, quite literally? Safely ensconced behind her Kindle or other e-reader, where no one can see the dirty little secret hiding behind the nondescript cover?

So I'll come right out and admit that I recently downloaded my very own copy of Fifty Shades of Grey. Out of a pure literary interest, of course. 

I had resisted for the longest time. I wasn't going to pay money for such crap, and crap I was very sure it must be, judging from some of the comments I had seen online and from thousands of Amazon reviews (though there are also thousands more that nothing but rave). "Badly written" and "terrible language" and "flat characters" were some of the words floating around in the blogosphere. Just another example of bad writing going viral because, let's face it, many readers don't have terribly high standards. 

I was fully prepared to blast this book to smithereens in my review. I must say I'm willing to stand corrected, at least partially. I just finished the first book - okay, so I might have devoured it just a teensy little bit - and there is nothing wrong with the language. Unless you of course object to frequent sprinklings of holy cow and holy shit and, the crowning iteration, holy fuck. A lot of shades of holy somethings. Probably fifty of them, if one were to count. And a lot of terribly repetitive phrases describing such things as degrees of blushing and tingling skin. And pages upon pages of very teenage conversations the heroine, Ana, conducts with both her subconscious and her "inner goddess." Yes, the plot isn't all that complex. Yes, the characters are awfully shallow. Yes, most everything in the story is totally unrealistic, starting with the main character, the enigmatic Mr. Grey and his billion-dollar corporation which he, in his twenties, somehow successfully runs God knows when, because he is actually having sex around the clock. Or shopping for sex toys. Or writing suggestive emails. But I was expecting the typos, missed commas, or any number of grammatical errors that were so readily attributed to it in some comments I'd seen, and none of them were in this book. The editor, if nothing else, was very thorough. I'm a stickler for good English grammar, and if I can read this, anybody can. As, in fact, they all do.

The plot of the book is basically an excuse to string one erotic - one might call it kinky porn - scene after the other, each one more captivating (and, frankly, strange) than the last so that by mid-book you will readily insert all the holy craps yourself at the appropriate moments. The big question is, will Ana actually sign her lover's agreement to go along with all his weird bedroom demands, and all you can think as a reader is yes, please do, because you really want to know what else comes next. For all that's wrong with this book, and for as much as it goes against my grain to condone such shallowness, the author has figured out the one secret to successful writing: To get you to turn the page. And when you get to the end, to get you to buy the next book.

At something like forty million copies sold worldwide for the trilogy, she did succeed in that, I'd say. Holy crap.

There's one thing I can't get out of my head. If you believe the adage that you should write about what you know best - a theory that I am subscribing to, as you can see, which you'll agree is the reason I had to read this book, not some heretofore unbeknownst craving for the erotica genre  - it's actually more than a bit scary. What does her sex life look like, I wonder? I shudder to think of all the cookies on her internet browser from the extensive research she has evidently conducted into topics I had never even heard about in my life before reading this book. I blush to think of the Google ads she must be bombarded with.

But wherever she gets her inspiration from, let's face it, this woman can write a good yarn. So there you have it. Some fellow writers might chew me out for even suggesting it, but I'm taking my hat off to E L James (I'm pretty sure that's nowhere near her real name). Yes, given the choice I'd rather have written Harry Potter than Fifty Shades, but seeing as I did neither, it hardly matters.

I really should get started finding those thirty nine million nine hundred ninety nine thousand nine hundred and twenty eight additional readers for the stuff that I do write.

But first, please excuse me while I figure out how to delete a certain book from our Kindle archives, lest the kids download it for their bedtime reading.


And now for some blatant piggybacking: If you feel you must buy your own copy, do it here, so I can get Amazon Associates points:

Fifty Shades of Grey: Book One of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, Kindle version
Fifty Shades Darker: Book Two of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, Kindle version
Fifty Shades Freed: Book Three of the Fifty Shades Trilogy, Kindle version

And here for the fun spin-off ones:

A Guy's Secret Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey
Fifty Shades of Black and Blue (please note the author of this one, I B Naughtie)

Please do not tell my husband about this last one, or my life will become fifty shades busier:

A User's Guide for Fifty Shades of Grey: Hot Tips for Couples to Spice Things Up

September 25, 2012

Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Three: The First Big Test

Shira Plateau to Barranco via Lava Tower, Tue Sept 4, 2012
Distance: 10 km, 7-8 hours
Elevation: 760 m climb to Lava Tower at 4600 m, then down again to 3950 m 

Enroute again on Day Three going up to Lava Tower

Today we make sure to pack all our warm stuff in our day packs, because it is bound to get cold at Lava Tower, one of the highest points we will reach this entire week. It's already very chilly in the mornings and like yesterday we eagerly await the sunrise. No sunshine, no washing or brushing teeth, seems to have become my mantra. It is simply too cold to get anything wet. So I'm thankful (as are, I'm sure, my fellow climbers) for the beautiful weather so far which has allowed for bouts of personal hygiene.

As you continue to climb Kili, you begin taking a closer interest in the mountain that all of a sudden is such a big part of your life. There are always those who read ahead on their travels and know every last detail about their destination before they've ever set foot there, but I'm not one of those people. As I've told you before, I had a vague idea where we were flying to, and an even vaguer idea, it turns out, when that would be, so it was really rather a miracle in itself that we showed up at the airport in time for our flights the day previous to the one that had been written into our calendars so long ago but had been incorrect due to some group booking mixup.

Good thing I have a husband who actually looks at e-tickets, even if they're not his own.

Sunrise over Shira Plateau. Photo credit: Martin B.

Anyway, now that we are here, we begin to have more and more questions. Like, "How many people actually make it to the top?" This turns out to be a very tricky one, and not one your guides will volunteer the answer for. Everyone is here to make it to the top, is their point of view. If you Google this question, the answers are varied. 40 to 60 percent of Kilimanjaro hikers fail to reach the summit, it seems. This sounds like a staggering number, but apparently the route you choose makes a huge difference. And here we are fortunate - turns out the Fat Controller's need for control was an asset in this respect: The success rate for the Machame Route is a much more encouraging 80%, perhaps due to the fact that it has the most varied terrain, giving ample "hike high, sleep low" opportunities plus an extra acclimatization day if needed, and perhaps also because it seems to attract more experienced hikers. As opposed to the Coca-Cola or Marangu Route, which has the highest failure rate.

Apparently, the Machame Route also offers the most breathtaking views, so we are very happy to be where we are.

Some of the breathtaking views on the Machame Route

Ascent to Lava Tower. Photo credit: Martin B.

A clear view of Mount Meru, at 4565 m impressive in its own right. Photo credit: Martin B.

Godlisten: Guide, friend, language teacher, motivational coach, photographer,
manager, personal trainer, storyteller, singer... I can't think of a better person
we could have entrusted with our safety and well-being for a week.

We pepper Godlisten with many more questions as we set out on our long trek from Shira Plateau up to Lava Tower. And Hillary, aka Sir Edmund. They both know this mountain like the back of their hands and could probably walk all the way to the top with their eyes closed. In fact, they had just come down with the previous group on the very day we arrived and were turning right around to take us up again the next morning. While we were at Springlands Hotel,  there was quite some hoo-hah staged by a somewhat loud American about his impending attempt to set a new record to scale Kili four times in only 28 days. Sounds impressive, until you think about it: That record has probably already been set ages ago by scores of guides, let alone some of the porters who seem to scurry up and down several times a day, they run so fast.

While we're on records, there is indeed one of them that's worth noting. Godlisten tells us about Lance from South Africa, who at one time has held the record of reaching the summit in just 9 hours 45 minutes (it has since been broken). Now that really is impressive. Here we are having already walked for almost three days, probably closer to 20 hours total, and that snow-covered peak is as far away as ever. Heck, it'll probably take us longer than 9 hours to walk down the mountain again. He must have practically jogged up the most direct route there is, and he can't have taken many breaks.

On the plus side, he didn't have to worry about many potty breaks either.

And I dare say he also didn't have a cellphone to charge. Whereas us regular folks, and especially Professor Calculus, have a very strong longing to find a way to charge our phones, which for some of us also double as cameras. Doesn't the idea of a mini solar panel to strap to your backpack and connect to your phone so it can charge while hiking in the sunshine sound like a wonderful invention?

Well, just like communism, it works better in theory than in practice. That little panel does indeed succeed in producing a charge, which is just powerful enough to wake the phone from sleep and make it chime with a rather loud da-dinggggg sound. But that effort proves to be too much  for the poor phone, so that it immediately falls into an exhausted slumber, only to be woken up again a moment later announcing itself to the world with another da-dinggggg. Whenever we rest, we all soon follow the same pattern. We wearily set down our backpacks, we stretch out on a warm rock and fall into a slumber, and then we're all woken up again by Professor Calculus' backpack emitting a veritable morse code conversation of da-dingggg's.

Dare we lay down to rest?
No, we shouldn't have, there is no rest while The-little-solar-panel-that-could is at work

At some point in time during the week, the solar panel went the way of the debate about elevation in feet, meaning it was voted off the island (or, rather, the mountain). Although, ever true to his name, Prof Calculus was able to re-fit it so it could charge Sir Edmund's camera battery, which thankfully had no ambitions to emit any decibels at all. After that, the good professor's technical skills were needed in more urgent quarters, namely in masterfully spreading rock-solid peanut butter on soft sandwich bread.

When we finally reach Lava Tower in the afternoon, we are utterly spent. It has been less of a climb than either of the previous days, but the altitude is starting to take its toll. The good news is, our only job up here is to rest for an hour and acclimatize to the 4600 m in altitude as much as we can. We eat from our lunch packs while trying to keep the greedy ravens at bay, and then take our naps, as ordered.

Photo credit: Martin B.

Lava Tower
The picture belies our exhaustion at Lava Tower. Photo credit: Godlisten Mkonyi

When we start our descent again to go down to Barranco, our next camp, I cannot slow myself down. Zax and I practically race down the mountainside. It is such a joy to go downhill for a change. But as the landscape transforms dramatically into a rather eerie sort of forest the likes of which I've never seen before, so does my mood. I feel gloomy and tired and have a headache coming on. With each downward step the pounding increases, as if I am descending into a pressure chamber. The last ten minutes are pure agony, as my head feels like it's going to split. I say a silent prayer when the camp suddenly appears in the fog, and all I manage to do is crawl into the first tent, close my eyes, and let Zax do the rest.

I don't think my head has ever hurt so much in my life. I also feel like I need to throw up, but the idea of moving even my little finger seems quite insane, so I just lie there trying to will the pain away. It takes me fifteen minutes just to form a plan of how to get to the Ibuprofen in my first aid kit and once I get up the nerve to execute it and swallow some pills, the effort is so taxing that I collapse again, quite sure that nothing and no one will ever rouse me again.

But I'm wrong. Goddy, who has immediately spotted the empty chair at dinner, unceremoniously lets himself in and interrogates me. If he pulled out a stethoscope, I wouldn't be one bit surprised, he has such an air of doctor around him. And quite doctor-like he delivers his orders for me, which encompass dragging myself to the toilet and then to the mess tent, where I'll be expected to drink some tea and eat some soup. Getting up is the very last thing I want to do, but from the first day every one of us has done exactly what Goddy has told us to do, and so it is this time.

Apparently, getting a headache after Lava Tower is quite the common occurrence. It's part of the acclimatization process. Although I would have thought going back down to a lower altitude makes you feel better, not worse. It's actually rather odd that only one in our group gets it, and it's rather annoying it has to be me. It'll be much better after an hour, Goddy assures me, and so it is. Although I still can't bring myself to force down any food, which is piled onto my plate by well-meaning hands. The mere thought of peanuts, which is the last thing I ate at Lava Tower, is enough to make me ill for the rest of the week. I force down as much tea as I can and crawl back into my sleeping bag, teeth chattering.

I know this has been my first big test. I'm a bit worried about Barafu Camp, which will take us back to the same altitude as Lava Tower.

But tomorrow is going to be a new day.

Descent from Lava Tower into a wall of clouds. Photo credit: Martin B.

Eerie forest of Senecio trees on the way to Barranco Camp

What, you thought I was going to let you go without any toilet talk today? Not so fast. I want to show you a little video. A video I actually played again and again while I was writing my leading-up-to-Kili blog posts and contemplating the toilet predicament. Especially the female toilet predicament. After three days of squatting behind rocks emptying my overeager bladder while trying to stay out of sight on a mountain which as I've told you is crawling with people, I deeply regret not having invested in one of these contraptions.

Although, on second thought, there seems to be an element of good aim required to make it work, reminding me of peeing into a cup at the doctor's office and my rather poor spill-free record in that department. Plus the whole topic of clean-up before stowing-away (or, alternately, the even more unpleasant topic of stowing-away without cleanup) is nothing I want to explore further.

So perhaps squatting is, after all, the safer if more uncomfortable route.

See for yourself.

To be continued...
Previous Kili posts:
To Climb or Not to Climb Kili
A Pair of New Boots... And a Countdown
Countdown to Kili: The Shopping List
Countdown to Kili: A Garden Trowel? Seriously?
Countdown to Kili: The Test Hike
Countdown to Kili: Just Give Me a Mountain
Kili Here we Come
Kilimanjaro - The Most Incredible Experience
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day One: Pole Pole
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Two: TeeTee the Toilet Tent


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

September 23, 2012

Alexandra Tour Guide for a Day

Someone recently commented that it felt like I was their tour guide through Expat Life in South Africa.

Well, I don't know about that, but today I definitely felt like a tour guide. An Off the Beaten Track kind of tour guide, taking my flock right into the heart of Alexandra, one of South Africa's most notorious neighborhoods, giving them a rare glimpse of this oft-maligned township, with plenty of This is Africa moments sprinkled in. And, to top it off, another traffic cop story.

Dilapidated sports field in Alexandra

What could be better than another traffic cop story? Joburg Expat just wouldn't be the same without them.

It all started out with three ginormous duffel bags. Filled with baseball equipment that had traveled a rather circuitous route to end up in  my garage. If you've hung around this blog for a while, you might be aware of my efforts over the past two years to help the Alexandra Baseball league. One of my friends back in Wisconsin had gone out of her way knocking on the doors of high schools to beg for their used equipment and collected a mountain of gear for her garage, from where it was dispatched here to South Africa little by little on whichever path available, the latest of which included an American family moving here from literally two towns over and generously offering some of their container space for it.

Today was the day I was going to deliver this equipment to its storage in Alexandra, from where the coaches move it to various schools as needed when they are running baseball clinics and such, all on their own time and with practically no money.

And while I was there, I was also going to use our Paypal donations to help buy fencing materials so that finally, finally, we could put together that elusive back stop. No team will come play league games on your sports field if you don't have a backstop. And travelling to other fields the entire season has always been prohibitively expensive for a team where none of the parents or coaches own a car. Not a single one.

Now, I've come to learn from past experience that driving into Alexandra is never a quick errand. I always get recruited into delivering things from here to there or ferrying people from there to here, or tagging along to potential donors to help beg for money or food. But I still wasn't quite ready for the extra bout of patience that was required of me today. And not only of me, but of my tour group as well. A tour group of one, admittedly, and a non-paying one, but still I felt quite honored to be giving our German visitor a tour through fabled Alexandra.

The first challenge, as always, is hooking up with my friends Tedius and Cedric. I'm hopeless at navigating through Alex, so we usually agree on a meeting point somewhere along London Road, which more often than not changes at least twice after I've left the house. All is well today, however, and we soon have two more passengers sitting in the car, giving us directions of where to go.

A glimpse into Alexandra's back yards

Basketball court at Atrec Stadium - I have serious fence envy!

Except we're not going to the little hideaway basement where we usually unload stuff. Before that can happen, I am informed, we must deliver some posters to Cedric's office. Which we first  have to pick up at the sports ground. An opportunity to exhibit our work at a local charity info day has "just come up this morning" and so the priority right now is to glue pictures to a poster-board and copy some flyers to distribute at the exhibition. It occurs to me that we have a beautiful poster-board I once made for another exhibition, but unfortunately that one is at "someone's house who is not in at the moment."

So we dig right in and fold and tear pieces of paper to manufacture the flyers. There is a lull when more flyers must be copied somewhere next door, and my German guest becomes curious about the roadside stall across the street selling cheese balls. Or whatever those puffy things are called. I have never gone shopping in Alexandra, so this is a first for me too. We settle on some chili flavored ones and pay the princely sum of R1 (12 cents) for a bag. They are very yummy and the photocopies are not forthcoming, so we end up buying half their supply over the course of the next thirty minutes, stuffing ourselves so full of cheese balls that we are almost sick.

Shopping for cheese puffs in Alexandra

Finally it is time to make our way over potholed streets and through labyrinthine alleys to our "store room," the location of which I cannot remember for the life of me. Cedric and Tedius chuckle at me because I always ask for directions, even though I have driven this way before. But I'm still as hopelessly lost in Alexandra as I was on the first day.

We unload all the donations, do a thorough count, and stow everything safely. It feels weird to be holding the baseball uniforms of the team my boys would be playing for now, had we only stayed in one place long enough. But that was two moves and two lifetimes ago.

Unloading baseball equipement

After that, it's time for a quick visit with one of the guys' relatives. Benedicte has an immaculate little house in the heart of Alexandra, and it is always a joy to chat with her. This time she is intrigued by my visitor, having come all the way from Germany to her house, so to speak, and she quizzes her on what she has done and seen in South Africa so far. As we've just yesterday made a visit to Diepsloot - a poor township just to the North of where we live, and due to its proximity to one of Joburg's richest suburbs the target of numerous outreach enterprises for flocks of volunteers - we tell her about that.

Her jaw drops. "You've been in Diepsloot?" she says, a look of horror on her face.

We assure her that yes, that's where we were, and she almost shudders. "That is such a dangerous place," she pronounces. "I would never dare to go there. People are killed in Diepsloot all the time. It's not like Alexandra, where we have order and everyone is safe."

Stop and ponder this for a moment, and the irony will not escape you. We are in the heart of Alexandra, the one place I was warned on my first day in South Africa to never ever go to because it's so dangerous - as you can see, telling me what I can't do is not very effective, but most of my friends haven't been eager to accompany me - and here is someone just as afraid of the place many expats visit several times a week, without the slightest hesitation.

Which just goes to show that we most fear the things we don't know. And that fear has no color. Getting to know a place and its people takes away your fear. It is the key to bridge the tremendous gap that still exists in this country between the haves and have-nots, between black and white.

Maybe I should consider giving regular tours of Alexandra.

Except my tour group's patience may be running thin. Because we are now off on our next errand, buying the materials for the fence, but of course not on any kind of direct path. First, I am informed, we must go get a quote from another hardware place, because word has it that it might be cheaper. The one quote we have looked good enough to me, but when you live in the township, you have learned to be thrifty.

Shopping for fencing materials

It turns out the second quote is higher, so we are off again to the place the first quote originated from. My visitor literally mentions that she is disappointed we haven't experienced one of my fabled traffic stops yet - we have already passed three road blocks this morning and I know I'm pushing my luck - when we drive over a bridge and right into the fangs of a traffic cop waving me over.

It's a woman cop, and she eyes my license suspiciously, as well as the oddity, from her point of view, of Tedius and Cedric in the back seat, waving at her cheerfully saying "Sharp, Sharp!" I am mildly curious which line of attack she will employ, and it is the Traffic Register Number one. I'm too tired to go through the motions and swiftly hand her my copy of the South African Road Traffic Act, which she pretends to study with furrowed brow. Her shoulders slump and I can tell she is not going to fight this. Do I have any sweets for her, is what she wants to know when handing everything back through the window. A chastise her for asking and drive off, too late remembering the box of TicTacs in the middle console. Surely I could have shared a TicTac with her.

I know you're eager to be done so I'll quickly wrap up the rest of my day, even though in reality it took another hour and a half before we could make our way home. We arrived at the building store ready to buy our stuff as per the first quote, except the quote wasn't with us but rather back in the office where our day had started. The clerks were friendly enough to help us search and search through a myriad of quote sheets, but to no avail, and in the end we had to drive back once again to the office to get our hands on a copy of the quote, because it seemed impossible to reconstruct from memory. This is where my visitor almost lost it. "This would never happen in Germany," she kept muttering. "People would come prepared."

And indeed it's true. This kind of a day only happens in Africa. Welcome to Type A Remedial School.

We did, however, get to buy some more delicious cheese balls!

September 20, 2012

Kilimanjaro Diary, Day Two: Teetee the Toilet Tent

Machame Hut to Shira Plateau, Monday Sep 3, 2012
Distance: 10 km, 5-7 hours
Elevation: 840 m climb from 3000 m to 3840 m

The area around Shira Plateau is arguably one of the most beautiful landscapes on Kilimanjaro.
Photo: Martin B.

Wake-up time is 7:15, with the sun still hiding behind the mountain, and we are greeted with bowls of hot water to start the day. What luxury! We wash and file into the mess tent, the need for which wasn't quite so apparent the previous day when it was nice and warm, but in the chilly morning it provides welcome shelter.

We are not entirely surprised that omelettes are on the menu, because we saw our guide tote a bag of eggs up the mountain yesterday. What is surprising, though, is that we are to have eggs for breakfast every single day of our hike. What lengths to go through to ensure that we have every possible comfort on the mountain. And yet there are people, Goddy tells us, who will find a way to complain about the food. He has stories about a group who sent the bowl of rice "back to the kitchen," asking for potatoes instead. Or vice versa. Excuse me - back to the kitchen? What the hell kitchen are they talking about? Do they think there is a mountainside restaurant next door where the food magically appears from? Are they not aware that these cooks are going out of their way to provide a home-cooked meal using less-than-stellar equipment, getting up at the crack of dawn to start boiling water, then feed you, then do the dishes, then race up the mountain carrying your rice (or potatoes, whichever it may be) and everything else on their very backs to get there just in time to start all over again?

Hiking from Machame Hut to Shira Plateau, Day Two. Photo: Martin B.
Taking a break. Photo: Martin B.

Just thinking about all this effort makes me ashamed to ever have complained about the hassles of cooking for my family. I would have eaten anything they served us on the mountain, but as it turns out, the food was delicious. And always exactly what was needed to replenish our exhausted bodies. Starting with a huge pot of steaming soup every single night.

After breakfast it's time to pack our belongings and get on with the other morning ritual: replenishing our water supplies. If pole pole is the one admonishment you hear from your guides all day long, the other is drink! However much you think you should be drinking, it's never enough. You need to drink even more. Our guides recommend 3-4 liters per person and it is always a challenge to finish all that. You pretty much need to be drinking constantly. Which gets me to another recommendation of mine, should you contemplate a Kili climb: Get a 2-liter water bladder to stuff into your backpack, and in addition two insulated water bottles for either side of your backpack. Drink from the bladder throughout the hike, and use the bottles when taking a break - that way you have a chance of finishing it, and if there is one thing that can help ward off altitude sickness, it is taking in enough liquids (so finish your soup as well!).

So the morning's ritual is to distribute all the water into the correct vessels and to add purification tablets as needed. They say the water is boiled, and I'm sure it is, but you can't be certain it was long enough to kill all the bacteria (and, judging from the crowds who often behave in a less-than-sanitary way, there are a lot of bacteria to go around on this mountain). The chlorination tablets taste awful, like drinking directly from your pool, but you get used to it. Some people recommend the iodine drops. The best way to mask the taste is to bring plenty of Game or some other energy drink powder, which has the dual benefit of rehydrating your body better than water alone. For a very good summary on water purification methods, read this. Or buy the book How to Shit in the Woods, I am not shitting you.

Here we are, all of us, still in good spirits: Goddy, our guide, the Fat Controller, Sebastian, Zax, Dory,
Mr. Potato Head, Woody, Professor Calculus, Johnny Fartpants, Bo-Peep, and me. Check out
this post for more background info on these characters...

Goddy and Sir Edmund
I made the mistake of mentioning I wanted
to bring a rock home from Kili...

It is almost a pity we have to leave just as the sun is emerging over the crest, radiating warmth. But we have a long day ahead of us. Going from Machame Hut to Shira Plateau is another 10 km hike but a little less elevation than yesterday. Even though it's too early to celebrate this, because the net elevation can be deceiving - you might have to go both up and down to get there. In fact, if you check out the map for Machame Route, looking at it from a side-view profile, you will see that there are quite a few peaks and valleys (whereas the Marangu or Coca-Cola Route goes uphill at a very steady clip). This has the distinct advantage that it enables you to hike high and sleep low, one of the most important tools to help acclimatize your body to the elevation. But knowing this doesn't make it any less painful to hike down again, within minutes, what you have so painfully labored up for hours the same day.

In any case, we start out at a fairly steep climb and I'm glad to be using my hiking sticks, which I had packed in my duffel bag yesterday. As I've said before, I can highly recommend hiking with poles, as it takes some weight off your weary legs. Except it adds weight to your arms and shoulders which begin to tell you by about 1:00 each day that they've done enough hiking. But I won't bore you with our collective ailments - what do you expect from a group of middle-aged hikers (not counting the boys of course)?

Standing on the left in all its glory: Teetee the Toilet Tent

Plus I shouldn't veer too far from my favorite topic, the toilet tent. Have I told you how very happy hiring Teetee made me? Well -  if one tent is nice, why the hell didn't we hire two of them? Because one of us might  have stepped in some human waste - not a difficult thing to do - and caught giardia in the process,  monopolizing Teetee for the next two days. All of a sudden, Teetee is not such a happy place anymore, even if it happens to be available, and you wistfully look at other groups' Teetees, wondering if anybody might notice if you snuck in there. Or if you just peed somewhere between the tents.

Because by golly you have to pee.

This seems to be one of the side effects of Diamox, which most of us have started taking at various points in time to ward off altitude sickness, also called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). That, and a tingling in your fingers and toes and perhaps even other body parts that shall remain unnamed. Despite side effects, Diamox has proved a blessing to our group, because it provides a much-needed new topic for endless debate. The only problem is that talking about Diamox invariably leads us back to our favorite topic, the toilet. because have I mentioned that it makes you pee like there is no tomorrow? To the tune of four times a night or more. I won't even try to calculate how many zipping and unzipping actions that involves.

The big debate is whether to take Diamox or not. And when to start taking it. Some people swear by it, and others disdain its use, saying it might even mask the effects of AMS, putting you in more danger. Or, so another argument goes, by using it as a prophylaxis you might already have used up one possible cure, in case you really do get AMS. Although the only effective "cure" is to get down the mountain as fast as you can (and to acclimatize very slowly before it even gets to that) so I'm not sure this second point holds. Our doctor recommended taking it even before we started, but we have settled on beginning a bit later, on day two. The thing is, some people never get altitude sickness and some people do. Diamox helps by acidifying the blood, which somehow spurs your breathing and gets more oxygen into your bloodstream. By the way, Diamox is really a drug to treat Glaucoma and some other ailments such as epilepsy, and its use to treat or prevent altitude sickness is not officially licensed. Just saying. In case you wonder why your doctor might not be willing to prescribe it, depending on the country you're coming from. My take is, while Diamox doesn't guarantee you will escape the effects of climbing to a high altitude, it does seem to increase your chances. So why not take it?

Get Diamox, is my advice. And hire the toilet tent.

Beautiful views while ascending to Shira Plateau. Photo: Martin B.

Another topic that provides for hours of conversation is the eternal debate about feet versus meters. One of us - the Fat Controller, if you must know - has brought a GPS that can capture altitude and it is set in feet. Every time we take a quick break to catch our breath he rummages in his bag, retrieves the GPS, and takes the necessary measurements. Then he proudly announces our elevation above sea level, which invariably is followed by "how much is that in meters?" and many complicated calculations. Or Goddy will inform us of the altitude we have achieved today, and immediately the debate flares up again how much that might be in feet. It is all very confusing, made harder by the fact that above a certain altitude - in either meters or feet - your brain seems to slow down dramatically, incapable of performing the most rudimentary math problem in less than ten minutes.

Although as I said it is insofar welcome as it distracts from our other favorite topic. You know which one I'm talking about.

I'm not even sure why this is such an issue. The only one in our group with a legitimate claim to feet and inches should be Zax, as the only American-born amongst us, and he has accepted the superiority of the metric system from a young age. I'm happy to say that eventually the Fat Controller came to see the light and by Day Three the GPS was switched to meters once and for all. Because the only number that matters to us is 5895 meters. The highest point in Africa. And the height of the highest free-standing mountain in the world.

That's where we're trying to get. If you must know what this is in feet, go Google it.

Shira Plateau, when it finallly arrives, is a welcome sight. By the end of this day we have two guys in our group who are really struggling - one from a combination of jet-lag induced exhaustion combined with altitude, and the other from an intestinal bug.

It's not at all clear that everyone will be able to carry on tomorrow.

To be continued...

Previous Kili posts:
To Climb or Not to Climb Kili
A Pair of New Boots... And a Countdown
Countdown to Kili: The Shopping List
Countdown to Kili: A Garden Trowel? Seriously?
Countdown to Kili: The Test Hike
Countdown to Kili: Just Give Me a Mountain
Kili Here we Come
Kilimanjaro - The Most Incredible Experience
Kilimanjaro Diary, Day One: Pole Pole


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.

September 18, 2012

Welcome to Type A Remedial School

As seen on Africa, this is why I live here Facebook Page
"I am very type A. I will leave this country as one cool lady or very medicated."

I'm taking a quick break from my Kilimanjaro Diary because life has a habit of continuing and throwing new stories at you that must be told.

The above quote is from one of my readers who, having recently arrived in South Africa, is struggling with the typical moving-in and getting-settled type chores, such as waiting around for contractors to fix things around the house "just now." Haven't we all gone through that. And haven't I written tons of posts about these Welcome to Africa stories.

There is a lot of wisdom in her words. Most people - especially Americans, a people known for their can-do-let's-tackle-it attitude - arrive here with a long list of to-dos in their hands and a travel itinerary in their heads. If we can only get past the one, is their thinking, we're finally off to do the other. Except you will get nowhere with this kind of linear thinking here in South Africa. We went on our first safari when our  house looked like a war zone from the container shipment just having arrived and literally being dumped, upside-down, in our house, and we never looked back, getting to see the most exotic places in Africa while my original to-do list is still lingering somewhere on my desk, unfinished.

So it's very true - if you have a type A personality, life in South Africa will either make a total convert of you, or you probably won't much like it here. Most people end up becoming converts, to the extend that almost no one I know wants to go back to where they came from. The prospect of hustling around like a hamster all day, trying to out-busy the next person, is simply too depressing.

Hakuna Matata, Life is Good.

I'm not saying you'll find yourself sitting under a tree smoking dagga after living here for a few years (although it doesn't sound so bad, to be completely honest). But you will have become SO much more relaxed. About everything.

Phone lines not working for a few days? No worries.

Power outage? Let's go meet friends for a coffee.

Store is out (has been out for months) of a key ingredient? Eat something else.

Haven't received mail in months? Who cares, mail is overrated anyway.

Leaking roof and flooding in your garage? It will dry again.

No gas to be found on the coldest winter day? Go running, it will warm you up. Or go to bed early.

Robot been broken for weeks? Doesn't faze you, really. Fourway stops work almost as well.

Guy in front of you at the hardware store taking ages to decide? You'll glance over his shoulder and see if you can help, and next thing you know you're planning his new kitchen layout with him.

Standing in the long-awaited shower after a week on Kilimanjaro with only a cold trickle coming out wondering what else might possibly go wrong, at which point the power goes off and you're standing in pitch dark (as recounted by my friend)? You start laughing uncontrollably because this is hilarious and life, really, is good.

Living in Africa will infuse you with a healthy dose of humor, if you'll only allow it. You will laugh about things you used to frown at, you will forgive where you used to hold a grudge, and you will find beauty in everything, from the toothless smile of the street vendor to the fat bum on the sidewalk in front of you blocking the way.

Even so, certain events still have the power to tax the patience of those of us who think we've mellowed out sufficiently to deal with any typical African day.

Just wait till you tour Alexandra with me in my next story.

September 15, 2012

Kilimanjaro Diary, Day One: Pole Pole

Machame Gate to Machame Hut, Tanzania, Sunday Sep 2, 2012
Distance: 9-10 km, 5-7 hours
Elevation: 1200 m climb from 1800 m to 3000 m

Before you've even embarked on your flight to get to the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, you'll have heard the worlds pole pole. Which means slowly. Apparently, nothing quite equals pole pole in contributing to your success in making it all the way to the summit. In equal measure, however, nothing equals pole pole in contributing to your impatience early on. From the moment you first arrive at your hotel in Moshi - in our case, the Springlands Hotel *, but there are dozens, possibly hundreds, just like it - events will move at a pole pole pace.

Because our Joburg-Nairobi-Kilimanjaro flight left at such an ungodly hour, we roll into the courtyard of our hotel on Saturday morning and have an entire day at our disposal. There are only so many times you can pack and repack your bag and once you've rented your hiking poles - definitely useful - and bought a few bottles of water - also very handy in addition to the water bottles you might already have packed - and taken one last commemorative shower, you are really all set and ready to go.

Except then you still have over half a day of sitting around waiting for dinner and listening to a briefing which tells you nothing about what you need to know. What you do need to know you find out from some kindly South Africans who have just returned that very morning from their climb and see you are assigned to the same guide they have come to love over the previous seven days.

Just think about this for a moment: Our guide and his team have just returned from summitting Kili, and tomorrow they'll turn around and do the same thing again, on only one night's rest. Remarkable.

What's also remarkable are their names: Our head guide is Godlisten, Goddy for short. His name in Swahili is Mungu Sikiliza, so I think we'll have to stay with Goddy. Our assistant guide is Hillary. We christen him Sir Edmund on the spot and cannot help but feel confident that such auspicious names will have to lead to success.

Except all this doesn't interest us terribly at the moment. Because the question we really need answered by this other group is the one about the toilet situation. Since I'm not much of a planner I have successfully supressed all thoughts about this topic up until this point, figuring there is nothing to be done about it.

It turns out there is, however, and it doesn't involve the use of the garden trowel from my packing list.

What we actually need to get, we learn, is our own private toilet tent.

A private toilet tent? How cool is that! And by the way, if you are not enjoying the toilet talk, you might as well skip the next couple of chapters. Hiking on Kilimanjaro - or any other mountain, I presume - reduces your topics of interest to three things: Where will I eat, where will I sleep, and where do I empty my bowels. And not only you will be preoccupied with this. Everyone else in your group will be more in tune with your bodily functions than you ever wished for, trust me.

In any case, a private toilet tent is just that - a little tent with enough room for a bucket topped with a toilet seat that gives you complete privacy from prying eyes. Not so much from prying ears, alas, but still it is infinitely better than having to use the infamous drop toilets all the camps are outfitted with. If you're planning to frequent those toilets, you might as well not worry about altitude sickness. Because there is no doubt you'll be fainting from the smell way before you've even reached 3000 meters.

Toilet apartheid on the mountain...

...but I'm sure the smell is all the same.

So I am asking you, what would you be willing to spend on the luxury of someone carrying this private toilet tent up the mountain for you, so that you only have to share it with nine other people rather than three hundred? I'm guessing a lot more than US$10 per person.

Yep, that is possibly the best deal of any kind I have ever come across.

I mentioned three hundred people. If you've had the illusion that climbing Kilimanjaro is for nature lovers or anyone seeking the solitude of the great outdoors, you might think again. Somewhere between 25,000 to 35,000 climbers attempt to summit every year, from what I've meticulously researched online. Okay, I Googled it and went with the first link. That puts the number of people on the mountain in any given week between 500 and 700, and certainly much higher during peak season, which of course is when we went. So my guess of about 300 people in camp on any given day in September is probably not too far off. Which means each night you set up camp amidst a buzzing tent city, all of them spaced just a few meters apart, a distance allowing for a lot of nocturnal noise sharing, if you must know the truth. The route up the mountainside - whichever of the six official routes you choose - on any given day resembles more a busy highway than a hiking trail. You're much more likely to step on someone else's toes - and, frankly, someone else's turds - than seeing any wildlife or enjoying even a moment of solitude. It's a beehive.

But it doesn't matter. Everyone has come for the same purpose and you all share one big goal. Standing on Uhuru Peak on day six, at 5895 meters, long enough to snap the group picture so you can get the hell out of there again as fast as your legs will carry you.

First things first, though. Pole pole. Which means ever so slowly, in case I haven't mentioned that. Pole pole starts right at the park gate where you arrive after about an hour's drive in a bus. You sign in with your name and age, you use a real toilet for the last time, and then you wait. And wait.

Our boys waiting at Machame Gate
Monkeys on the warning signs at Machame Gate

If you're so inclined, you can meander over to where your guide is meeting with the porters he's assembled for the trip. This is where all the supplies get divvied up and weighed so that every one carries about the same weight. A staggering weight, let me tell you. Each of us has a duffel bag allowance of 15 kg, which I'm proud to say both Zax and I have stayed under by 5 kg each. And that's a good thing, because I think Dory with her many layers has gone over the limit, judging from her about-to-burst bag. Then there are all the tents, plates, cups, chairs, stoves, tables, and food for seven days. It's a lot of stuff and it's all laid out there at the park gate, down to the tightly bound bunch of parsley. We get three porters per person, meaning we have an entourage of thirty porters - 31 to be precise, I forgot toilet man, who by the way is truly overjoyed to have a job for the week - catering to our welfare on the mountain. Each of these porters easily carries 22 kg on his shoulders or on his head, and he does it in half the time it takes you with your puny daypack. When he gets there, his first job is to hike back down for half an hour to the next riverbed to fetch the water needed to sustain everybody. Then he helps pitch the tents, cut vegetables, and set the table. And after all that he still finds inspiration to carve Kili-jargon messages into the watermelon half that holds the fruit salad, making you laugh out loud while you have dessert.

These are some amazing people.

Porters loping uphill

You might also use the time waiting at the park gate to eat your lunch pack. That much less to carry up the mountain. And if you're lucky it will sufficiently spur your digestive system to warrant another visit at those nice toilet facilities!

Some others might be happy to have this break, before we've even taken a single step, to undertake repairs. I won't name any names but somebody has already managed to lose the bottom piece of his hiking pole, somewhere between the hotel and  here, and now it is distinctly too short to be of any use. By the way, you'll find me sprinkling in words of advice re climbing Kili here and there - though I will also attempt to list them all at the end - and one of them is that hiking poles are a must, in my opinion. I'd never hiked with them prior to Kili (if I'm honest, I'd never hiked much before Kili, period, with or without poles) but they make things so much easier on your legs and knees, both going up and coming down. Especially coming down. You can rent them at the hotel or bring your own.

But what use is a stubby short hiking stick without the bottom piece? Leave it to Professor Calculus to solve this puzzle. The forest supplies a nice piece of wood, a rubber stopper for the bottom is found somewhere along the way, the Leatherman tool does the rest, and bingo, you have a hiking pole good as new and with a lot of character.

A new hiking pole with character

Finally setting off up the mountain!

Finally, close to noon, we set off up the mountain on a wide path into the rain forest. A surprisingly steep path, but even so the pace is sooooo much slower than you would prefer. One foot in front of the other, pole pole. You lift up your foot for a step, but the person in front of you is moving so slowly, because your guide upfront is moving so slowly, that you cannot in fact put your foot back down yet, making you hover on the spot, foot suspended in midair, struggling not to topple backwards. The pace is so slow you wonder if you're  not actually losing altitude. You stop every ten minutes or so to let some porters through, who greet you with a friendly jambo and wave as they hurry past you not pole pole at all. What sustains them, you wonder?

Dagga, it turns out. Weed. Ganja. We come across some porters who are taking a break and are smoking, and the smell is overpowering. Of course I should mention here that I have no clue what the smell is, but the sixteen-year-olds in our group waste no time informing us with absolute certainty that it is pot. How they know this, I do not ask. Rather, I'm preoccupied with the thought of how to source some for myself, if this is what makes these guys sprint uphill like mountain goats.

We spend the whole day slowly moving up, pole pole. All the way from 1800 meters at the park gate - which is already a bit higher than the altitude of Joburg, if anyone cares to know - to Machame Hut at 3000 meters. There we sign our names into the book again - a procedure we are to repeat every night of our climb - before being treated to a wonderful dinner in our very own mess tent, overlooking a sea of clouds below. We have left the rainforest behind us and are camped between a few smaller trees.

Moving pole pole up what looks like a giant staircase

I reflect on the fact that we've hiked through dark rainforest all day, barely ever catching a glimpse of the sun,  surrounded by tall eerie trees and gigantic ferns, and how unusual it is that we didn't get rained on once. Even the forest road we hiked on first and later the narrow path were bone dry. I thank our good fortune, as I don't really want to find out if the ponchos I bought are indeed waterproof. Maybe picking early September, one of the dry seasons on the mountain, was in fact a good  move.

Bedtime comes early when you're on the mountain. Mainly because there is only so long you can linger in a mess tent (without alcohol) and also because the warmth of your sleeping bag is beckoning. The downside of turning off your headlamp at 8:00 pm - you've already read in your book which you wouldn't even have brought had your friend not recommended one to ward off sleeplessness, but now your arms are getting cold; you've tried reading inside your sleeping bag but there isn't enough space to extend your arms to the distance needed for people my age, and no one has thought to put "reading glasses" on your packing list - is that this makes for a really long night. But never fear, it will be broken down into nice little packets of about three hours each, separated from each other by several trips to the toilet tent. Which I've privately christened Teetee the Toilet Tent.

So you get up and out of your tent at some godforsaken hour. What are the chances Teetee will be occupied, I ask you? High, it turns out. It is a veritable zoo out there, and you pass the time waiting in line shivering and staring up the mountain. And then you're glad you got up, even if it means you have to unzip and re-zip fifteen closures in the process. Because the sight is incredible. Kibo - another name for the peak we're trying to scale and shrouded in clouds all day long - is suddenly towering above you in all its majestic beauty. You see its snow-covered ridges far above you under a moonlit sky, and it looks equally foreboding and magnificent. You also see lights reflecting off the snow somewhere up there and realize it must come from other people summitting right now in a long line of headlamps.

By the grace of God, that will be us in five days.

To be continued...

Photo credit: Adrian V.

* Springlands Hotel is the base of Zara Tours, and my earlier comment notwithstanding I can highly recommend this outfit. They cover everything from airport transfers to equipment rental and are a very well-oiled operation, employing a group of very skilled guides. Book through them and you won't be disappointed (and probably save a good deal of money). More Tips for Kili later in this series of posts.

Previous Kili posts:
To Climb or Not to Climb Kili
A Pair of New Boots... And a Countdown
Countdown to Kili: The Shopping List
Countdown to Kili: A Garden Trowel? Seriously?
Countdown to Kili: The Test Hike
Countdown to Kili: Just Give Me a Mountain
Kili Here we Come
Kilimanjaro - The Most Incredible Experience


Want the whole story? Buy the book:

UK customers: click here.
German edition: click here.