It’s a cold and windy day in Overland Park, Kansas. I’m sitting at my computer, not sure what to think.
Do we stay where we are, or do we move our family of six to Johannesburg, South Africa? It would be yet another continent to add to our list of places to call home. It would be exciting. And it would give the kids an opportunity to go to school in a new country, something they haven’t experienced yet.
In addition, it would allow me to upgrade my job description to “expat wife” – an idea that seems vastly more alluring than my daily housewife drudgery of cooking, overseeing homework, and splitting up sibling squabbles.
But we’ve only been in Kansas for three years, after a period of frequent moves all over the country, and aren’t particularly stir-crazy. The kids are happy in their various schools, I’ve got the sports scene figured out, we have an orthodontist and a hairdresser we like – in short, our life is one big, comfortable routine.
What’s more, I’ve just shut the lid of my laptop in disgust. I was looking at some web pages in an effort to find out more about life in South Africa, and I’m utterly discouraged by what I’ve seen. If I am to believe what is posted in one expat forum after another, South Africa – and the city of Johannesburg in particular – is a cesspit of crime. If we are so foolish as to move there, I have read, we’ll be carjacked and possibly murdered before we even make it from the airport to our house. We’ll have fingers chopped off to get to our jewelry, we’ll be accosted by gun-wielding thugs when we retrieve money from an ATM, and we’ll have rocks thrown into our windshields when waiting at a red light while criminals make off with our cell-phones. If we survive all of this, we’ll probably die in a car wreck because everyone is advised to “never stop at a red light.”
Wouldn’t it be irresponsible to move to such a dangerous place? It sure seems like it. All of our friends and relatives apparently agree. “Johannesburg? You must be out of your mind,” is one of the milder reactions we’ve gotten when cautiously floating the idea in recent weeks. Just going there by ourselves, is the consensus, would be foolish enough. But taking our children to the world’s murder capital, a label that the city of Johannesburg – unfairly or not – has been stuck with since the downfall of the apartheid regime, is tantamount to gross negligence, if not worse. “Don’t go,” we’re hearing from all sides.
Perhaps it’s because I hate being told what I can’t do. Or perhaps a life of moves, first without children and then with them, has programmed my inner clock to once again become impatient for a change of scenery, routines be damned. What if there is another side to life in Africa, one that I’ll have to dig deeper to understand?
I’m struck by a sudden thought, and I open my computer once again. As expected, Googling “Kilimanjaro” yields an entirely more promising collection of links than “Expat in Johannesburg,” and before long I’m completely hooked.
A seed has been planted.
Part I – The Planning
“Nowadays, when all the world is on the move, and all sorts of traveling requisites are at the traveler’s command, the difficulty is not so much to know what to take as what to omit.”– Dr. Hans Meyer, first to summit Mount Kilimanjaro
To Climb or Not to Climb Kilimanjaro
We did move to South Africa in early 2010, arriving quite safely at our house that first day, fingers and windshields intact. Without waiting for a new routine to settle into, we embarked on a whirlwind of travel and adventure, fueled in equal measure by the knowledge that any expat assignment eventually ends and must be exploited, and by the breathtaking beauty of our surroundings. By now almost two years have passed, and the snows of Kilimanjaro are looming as distant as ever, even though I’ve been harboring the secret idea of climbing to Africa’s roof from the moment I stepped onto its shores.
I can’t tell you what drove me to read up on the ins and outs of climbing Kilimanjaro before we even settled on a South African school to send our children to. I’m not a mountain climber. I’m not particularly outdoorsy. I don’t even like going for walks all that much and would rather sit at my computer with a steaming cup of coffee. Klaus, my husband, often raves about the “fresh air” in an attempt to lure me and the kids – who are often as firmly glued to their electronic devices as I am to mine – out into the great outdoors. But you know what? I vastly prefer warm air over fresh air.
I’m rather a couch potato, if I’m completely honest. I do like the odd adventure, but mainly for the purpose of writing about it afterwards. While I’m living it, I usually can’t wait to get it behind me already so that I can take my shower and start my story, which invariably is funnier in hindsight than while it’s happening.
I’m not one to make bucket lists, either. I do like to make lists, but they are of the mundane variety: “Make dentist appointment,” “Repair sprinkler head,” and, lately, “Figure out how the hell to kill the mole that’s destroying our lawn.” If I did make any bucket lists, climbing a mountain is possibly the last thing I’d put on there. I’m terrified of heights, and I might even be more terrified of being cold, both of which are hard to avoid when you go mountain-climbing.
In fact, I can come up with a million other reasons why not to climb Kilimanjaro. I might get sick, for instance. I’m not a hypochondriac, but the ways you could possibly get sick on Mount Kilimanjaro, a little bit of research will tell you, are mind-boggling. Apart from the dreaded altitude sickness forcing many a traveler to a premature descent (or killing those who don’t have the good sense to turn around), there are a myriad other illnesses that could make life miserable for you on the mountain. If you don’t get attacked by a vicious stomach ailment from contaminated water, get an infected blister on your heel, or suffer from a broken bone after tumbling down a deep scree slope, you might still succumb to illness after your trip when malaria – only a threat during the two nights at the base hotel but that might be all it takes – catches up with you when you think you’re safely home again.
I’m also not really looking for any more excitement in my life. From that fateful day we decided to ignore all the warnings and give South Africa a try, we’ve embraced being expats and taking in as much of the country as we possibly can. It’s so easy to get sucked in by the demands of everyday life, wherever you might live, and totally forget that you are in the most exotic place you’ve ever been, but probably not for much longer. We know this from experience. South Africa isn’t the first expat assignment for our family, you see. When the boys were little, at the end of the last century (I love being able to say that!), we lived in Singapore for a few years. Incidentally, this was also the beginning of my housewife existence, as it was Klaus’ job that took us there, not mine. As soon as we arrived I took on my new role with a vengeance and with as much drive as I had previously mustered for marketing plans and team-building exercises. I got so busy instituting nap regimens, sticker charts, and potty-training routines, let alone trying to convince “no English lah” repairmen to fix our air conditioning, that I almost forgot there was a tantalizing and exotic world out there to be explored. We did venture to some normally faraway places like New Zealand and Indonesia, but in retrospect not nearly enough of them. We departed, pregnant with our third child and full of regrets about countries not visited.
So far we’ve more than made up for it here, exploring not only South Africa, which by itself already offers a lifetime of interesting vacation spots, but also even more exotic locales such as Victoria Falls, Mozambique, Mauritius, Namibia, and Zanzibar. We’ve been kissed by elephants, petted a cheetah, dived with great white sharks, held a newborn lion, hurled ourselves off bridges and out of airplanes (okay, not all of us), swum in the Okavango, and paddled down the Zambezi. We’ve gotten as much adventure out of this life as one possibly can.
Surely I, a housewife and mother of four children with more than enough on my plate, do not need to go scale one of the major mountains in the world?
And yet, that is precisely what I want to do. My gut tells me that if I leave Africa without at least trying to see the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I’ll feel incomplete. And it’s not because of some yearning to add another exotic destination to the list. All I can think is that deep within me I must have a longing to do something meaningful, something to break up the years between child-bearing and retirement, to scale something of magnitude. But not too much magnitude, mind you, and if you think about it, Mount Kilimanjaro is the perfect candidate for just such a mid-magnitude type of endeavor.
It’s high – high enough to make for some labored breathing up top, if you even make it that far – but not prohibitively high. It’s the highest mountain on an entire continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world, rendering your feat just a little bit more special. And consider the latitude. If I am to have any chance of not freezing to death on a mountain’s summit, the only one in the world sitting smack on the equator is the obvious choice.
Or maybe Ernest Hemingway is to blame, although I’ve never been a big fan of his writing. Who doesn’t equate “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” with sweeping African savannah, camps in the bush, and servants aplenty to obey your every command and guide you on the right path while carrying your gun?
I admit it’s this last image that sealed the deal for me: the prospect of someone else lugging not my gun, but my sleeping bag and wet wipes and water bottles together with tents and a mountain of food for seven days, while I leisurely stroll behind.
Okay, not so leisurely, it turns out. But you get the picture.
Where else but Africa can you expect to be completely pampered when embarking on a week of hardship?
To continue, download Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life from the Amazon.com Kindle store.
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