Saturday, August 18, 2012

To the Summit

I'm sitting in Nairobi again, and it's a rainy afternoon. My lungs are full of oxygen, and my calves are sore. Yesterday I finished the long descent from Mount Kenya, which I started climbing with eight other friends on Sunday, August 12th. We met up on the evening of the 11th in Naro Moru, just outside of Nanyuki town, at a fellow volunteer's house to divide up our gear and make sure we'd packed everything we needed. We were a ragtag band of American travelers, made up of six Peace Corps Volunteers, two visiting family members, and one Fulbright Scholar. Some of us knew each other before we started the journey, but there were a lot of new acquaintances and subsequent friendships. The journey was incredible, definitely not one I'll soon forget.

On the morning of the 12th, we traveled into Nanyuki to meet up with Charles, who coordinated our whole excursion. We divvied up rental gear, picked up some medicine for altitude sickness, got a good breakfast and hit the road. We drove about an hour to the Mount Kenya National Park, at the Sirimon Gate where we met our team. There were two guides, Mike and Gertrude, a cook and his assistant, three porters to carry personal belongings, and five porters to carry food/other gear. (Side note: these porters were some of the strongest humans I'd seen, flying up and down the mountain with ease, and chain smoking at every camp. It was baffling, and frankly impressive). After a quick picnic lunch, we all eagerly started our 9k hike at a gradual incline. It was the first day, so we were all bright-eyed and energetic, and took a quick pace. The weather was nice and warm as we passed through tall, dense forests, and then into bamboo forests as we climbed higher. We reached Old Moses camp in the evening, in the midst of a light drizzle. We played games and ate a warm, delicious meal prepared by the cook. It was so quiet, such a nice change of pace from our daily negotiations of responsibilities, cultural exchanges and routine. We went to sleep with a feeling of excitement for the next day... but sleep didn't come easy. We'd rented two four-person tents from our company, but instead we got two three-person tents. We had brought one 2-3 person tent of our own, occupied by two people, and one of the rented three-person tents held the appropriate three people. But we had stuffed four people in the other rented three-person tent, and I don't think ANY of us got sleep that night. Although, it did break down some barriers in getting to know one another! Luckily, we fit another person in the smallest tent after the first night, so we were able to get rest after the initial disaster.

Day two and three followed a similar schedule - an early morning breakfast and departure from camp, and arrival at the next camp in the early afternoon. Each day we hiked about 7 km, and we went through a few other vegetation zones as the altitude changed and became too high for trees. It was incredible to feel the changes in our bodies as we adjusted to the altitude. A short distance of hiking would leave us out of breath, hearts pounding. We kept the pace slow enough to sing some trail songs together without getting too winded, though.

On the morning of the fourth day, we woke up at 2 AM to the most magnificent night sky. The air was biting cold, and we all silently bundled up, rolled up our sleeping bags and filled our backpacks in nervous anticipation of the hardest part of our climb. We were scheduled to head out at 3 AM, but due to some nausea and some dead headlamp batteries, we were delayed until about 3:30. At that point, we set off with a shiver and a little prayer. We were thousands of meters above sea level, the oxygen was thin, the rocks were frosty and our muscles were sore, but we moved as a team. We slowly climbed the craggy side of the mountain in a race against the sun that was going to rise. We took water breaks, we passed labored whispers of encouragement to one another, and we climbed. We passed climbers who had gotten sick and others who couldn't catch their breath, but still we climbed. We looked to the left, and saw the waning moon above the patches of snow and jagged rocks. We followed our guides slowly, and we kept our eyes focused upward. Finally the sun began to barely lighten the sky, and we knew we didn't have much further to go. We pulled ourselves up, gripping cold stone, until we were walking on snow. It was 6:30 AM. Then, a few more meters. And a few more meters after that. A small iron ladder embedded in the rock, and then we could see it: the Kenyan flag on the summit. We were drawn to it like a magnet, and our windburned and sunburned faces softened into smiles. We cheered and we shivered (I cannot express how cold it was on top of that mountain) while we took pictures and sips of brandy. I wish we could have stayed up there longer, to watch the sun complete its journey into the sky, but it was freezing, and we still had a long way to hike. So we looked out over Kenya from above the clouds, took a moment to understand and appreciate where we were and how we'd arrived, and for the first time in four days, took some steps downhill.

We descended the mountain over the course of the next two days via the Chogoria route. We toasted some champagne on the last night, with a bottle that had made it to the top of the mountain and back (without bursting, which has to be some kind of miracle) just like all of us. Yesterday we rode back into Nairobi, and now I'm sitting at a table in a restaurant with wireless internet. I can't believe that only a few days ago I was on the top of the world, and now I'm back to reality. But, I know those memories, struggles and friendships will stay with me long after the windburn has healed.

I know I'm constantly trying to pull metaphors out of my experiences here, and I know that sometimes they're tenuous. But the experience of climbing the mountain helped put me at ease as I start to think about my last three months in Kenya, and what kind of posture I should take toward the endless unknown that I'm approaching. Sometimes we take a hiatus from what's expected of us. And instead of taking it easy, we go somewhere or do something challenging. It tests us, it changes us, and it's something we choose because we hope we're molded into something better than we were before. There's also a selfish element, a desire to become more interesting by virtue of a unique experience or accomplishment. But in the end, I find that both in the shadow of Mount Kenya and in my 23rd month of Peace Corps service, I am the one humbled and dwarfed by the very things I expected to conquer. It was never about me - it was about entering into something enduring, something that will remain long after I've left. It's about letting my interactions with those things change every perception, limit, and fear I've ever held.

Through my time here as a whole and the experience of climbing in particular, I have watched myself do things I never believed I could do. I don't mention that because I think it says anything about me - it's not to brag. I mention that because it's helped me realize how deeply powerful we all are, by virtue of being human and being able to challenge ourselves. Because we have the ability to imagine a reality, we have the ability to manifest that reality. I have had a lot of conversations in the past where I've said "If only I had this, or knew this, or was this kind of person... well then surely I could make this happen!" I still hear the same self-imposed limits when I talk to people at home who say "I wish I could travel like you do." Or when I hear Kenyans say "I wish I could visit your country" or when some of my students say "I wish I could go to high school." It's not fair to dismiss any of those comments with a cavalier attitude, brushing people off by saying "well, you can make it happen if you work at it." But I would say that in my experience, my deepest, most crippling limits were all self-imposed. And they have been uprooted not only through hard work, but by throwing myself into scary, difficult, strange situations. Sure I've behaved foolishly, I've made mistakes, and I've been deeply frustrated and disappointed along the way. And on that mountain, there were moments when I would have done anything to turn back, to fill my lungs with oxygen and feel warm again. But if I had, I would have never seen the top. And you know what? Because I kept trying to do things I never thought I could do, I've "summited" back at site, too. I've watched coworkers and friends fall in love with the Deaf students I care for so deeply. I have absolutely no fear for them once I go. I know they will still be loved and remembered by their community. I may have had a very small part to play in them, but those changes happened organically. That's how I know they'll last.

I share these reflections because there are a lot of changes ahead for me. But that's not new - there are always a lot of changes ahead for all of us. I'm just trying to keep in mind that if my plans aren't scary, they're not big enough. And that's not just true for me, that's true for everyone.

Now, the REALLY exciting news is that Kelsey and her family get here in two days. I have a little bit of time to catch up on work and e-mails, and then I'll be off on adventures with them until the beginning of September. I can't wait to share my home with people I love - it's always a real treat. And as we head into the downhill of August, I have my head and heart focused on fully engaging in this final term of teaching. I have very lofty goals for my students in these last few months, but I'm confident we can make them happen.

Until then, go climb a mountain. Figuratively, if you'd like. Either way, the view from the top is amazing.

1 comment:

  1. Jenny, this is amazing. I love being human because of the capacity to be challenged. It's my favorite part--deciding for yourself to grow and change--and you put it so beautifully and as powerfully as it truly is. Are there any pictures?? Love you. I'm having breakfast with Courtney this morning and I wish you were here. Can't wait to see you in four long, full and purposeful months!!