Monday, September 15, 2008

Should you run?

For all the years I have known myself, I have wanted to do many things like being able to sing, dance etc.

But I never wanted to run. I hate running. I can't run. I had mixed feelings regarding people who run- pity plus indifference. ‘Tsk tsk, whatever dude’. Sane people run when chased by dogs.

‘Congrats!’ I effused to my friend who completed the Marathon.

‘You can do it too,’ obligatory punctuation followed.

‘Why should I run? No marathon shit for me! In the end what have I achieved? Breathlessness? Naah! ’ I tried to sound positive and sensitive to what he had achieved.

‘Try a half marathon,’ my friend would besiege assuring me that I could definitely do it considering my fitness level and so on. As pandering as it was to my ego, I couldn’t see myself indulging in such a mindless activity.

‘Half Marathon? Yikes! Why would I ever do half of something when I can very well do the full? I would rather run a 5K than something that is called ‘half’ of something. So demeaning!’

‘Call it a 13.1 mile race then.’ He was postively giving me a headache.

‘Bah! It doesn’t just sound cool. I would rather bump my head on a railroad track.’ I despised running.

Just a day (24 hours) after this conversation, I signed up for the half marathon on some whim proving that I can't stand up for what I stand for. I had discovered runners high. I couldn’t stop running and couldn’t explain my predicament to the other non-runners.

Between my training sessions, I had to make a two week trip to India. And I had to run.

The first day my mom was shocked to see me up at 5 am, tying my shoe lace. The last time I woke up at 5 am was when …ermm.. there was no such recorded incident. It was required as it gets too hot after 6 am. Before she could stop me, I was out of the door running in the community feeling on top of the world. This would be great. Being used to run in long stretches on a trail along a river (in my backyard) with squirrels and deer scrambling past, in Bangalore I was encountered with roads that led to other people’s gates. I would have to make an abrupt U-turn just to face another dead end. I was running in a freaking maze- in the dark, bumping into the same house again and again. Out of nowhere, seven neighborhood stray dogs congregated and ran after me. There suddenly seemed to be a point in my running...and running fast! I somehow found my way and bolted into my house, breathless, just after scaring the living daylights off an aunty walking with Nikes and a head scarf. I just barely managed 15 minutes and had enough for the day.

My mom was wringing her hands in fury, ‘What is wrong with you? Why are you running like a mad woman? What will people say? We have to live in this neighborhood you know. You didn’t even have breakfast. What if you fainted?’

Day 2- I decided to run outside the gated compounds of this colony to keep my sanity and my mom’s name intact. So I snuck out early and ran along Bhanerghatta road towards this Shiva temple I knew to have a long secluded road. As I ran, people stopped what they were doing and their eyes followed me till eternity or till the awkwardness stopped (whichever came faster). I almost got run over by a few autos. Avoiding running over some kids sleeping on the ground, I leapt into a garbage dump. If I was training for hurdle race, this would have been so worth it. The secluded road did give me a few jitters when strange people appeared out of nowhere. But I managed a good run that day inspite of the locals wondering what ‘Goddess’ got inside me. I got back home to a livid mom.

‘Where were you? Its 2 hours since you left! I sent your mama in search of you. Stop running. Or if you have to, you better not go before the sun rises! It’s not safe.’

Day 3. Out of despair, I called up a few elite runner friends in Bangalore and got their advice on options. ‘We usually drive to Turali (which is 1 hour away) and then run along this beautiful stretch uphill. Sounded good to me. Plus I would have human company.

‘Can you pick me up from my place?’

‘South Bangalore eh? Then we’d have to wake up at 3 am.’

‘Holy Bambolee! I don’t think I can get permission to leave home that early. You see my mom is more used to me staying out till 3 am. She is having a hard time dealing with this. Plus the watchman would think I am eloping. Too much drama. ’ I was bummed and thought about Pittsburgh fondly when I could run in abandon anytime I wanted.

Day 4. My mom piled on pooris and aalo subzi on my plate and insisted I eat before going off to the gym. The gym, we decided, would be ideal given the situation. I sauntered off whistling towards the community gym letting my mind wander over the feeling I was going to get after the workout. There were at least dozen men in the gym and the swimming pool just sitting around in their hunches staring at me, some brushing their teeth with neem twigs. I smiled and they all just froze mid activity. They were caretakers and not gym users. I walked into this empty gym with rusting equipment. I opened the windows to let some breeze in and walked over to the treadmill. Hmmm….no treadmill. I looked around in vain and went out to ask one of the guys about the mystery of the missing treadmill.

‘Woh andar hai memsaab’ (It is inside)

‘Accha, Dikhta hai kya?’ (Is it visible to naked eye?)

The guy (who is apparently the caretaker or manager of the gym) walked in and scratched his head.

‘Kya bola apne?’ (What did you say?)

‘Treadmill on which you run.’ I did some running action to drive the point.

‘Agar aap kehte hai, toh nahin hoga.’ (If you say so, it probably isn’t here) ‘Aap dumbbell kar sakte hain memsaab’ (You can do dumbbells)

‘What do I do now? Can’t run outside, can’t run inside.’ Crestfallen face met puzzled face of Bahadur Singh.

Bhagna zaroori hai? (Should you run?)

PS: In spite of the Universe trying to conspire against me, I finished the Pittsburgh IKEA Half Marathon on Sept 6th in 2 hours 34 min. I wasn’t the last person to finish. There was a 10 year old. Yippee! Now if I had dogs following me, I would have had much better timing for sure.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Extraordinary people can't be related to

Say Godzilla decides that he wants to have some Indian today. He carries you off and places you on the buffet tray in Taj Mahal Indian restaurant. Definitely a worrisome proposition. You need help. Whom would you turn to?

a. Superman, the guy who paid too much for his chaddi and now needs to show it off.

b. Priya, the girl who flunked in Social Studies- just like you.

If your answer is b, you must be a white Republican suburban hockey mom! Just because you dimwits relate to Sarah Palin, doesn’t mean she can save you from the Godzilla. Go have some paani-poori with this woman and please vote for someone capable. [hint: Obama]

This advertisement is paid by the polar bears, moose, wolves, pigs, gays and people who would like to see less of the bleached wax statue called McCain on TV for the next four years. I might be forced to watch the E! channel (excuses excuses).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Smile Please Madam

We went to a friend’s house to congratulate them on their newly wedded status. They showed us their wedding album. It was a tastefully done coffee book with pictures that didn’t garishly shock, but rather sublimely blend. The pictures showed the bride and groom laughing into each others eyes looking lost in love and there was a picture of their silhouettes walking on the sands of Kovalam beach hand in hand. At the wedding ceremony the people were not even looking directly at the camera. The photography was brilliant and the lighting natural. The album brought a tear in my eye. A tear of abject jealousy and self pity.

‘That sucks!’ I said swallowing back more tears. ‘No, I mean it really sucks’ I tried explaining to the visibly perturbed hosts. ‘Not your album, but ours.’

‘Oh, come on…I bet it is awesome. We must see it sometime when we are your place.’

Both Pi and I cried in unison, ’Nooooo!

I shuddered thinking of the photos and the cameraman from hell (or rather Triplicane). On the album cover was my face, almost murderous, and around the photo was a message in golden letters ‘Heven shower blissings on the happy coupple.’ Next to mine was Pi’s face with his eyes closed…hoping no one could see what he saw.

If he hasn’t burnt them already, Pi guards the photos like a crazed watch dog. His figure not being a perfect ten during those days, made him protest vehemently against the cruel treatment given to Brahmin bridegrooms. ‘Sorry, you can not wear a shirt and the poonal (sacred thread) over that. You will have to go bare-chested.’ they said.

‘Can we wait for a year longer to get married? I could go to the gym or convert to Christianity.’ he begged.

Unfortunately no one even considered it; Pi had to pose without a shirt. I believe the constipated look on the guest’s faces was actually shock mingled with sympathy for me.

So there he was consciously half naked exposing chest hair to open fire and there I was telling him how his tummy was making the priest jealous as I poured some ghee into the flame. At that time, the the cameraman would call out loudly, ‘Madam, look here madam. Can you smile please? Tilt head towards him please and point that little pinky towards the Jupiter if you don’t mind. And while you are at it, could you move to the right so we can get the mapilai’s (groom) love handles in our frame.’

When Pi tied the mangalsutra, the camera guy made me shake hands with Pi and pose. *Click* At first I thought it must be the first kiss equivalent of Indian weddings, but later when he made my brother shake hands with Pi after my brother poured puffed rice into the flame, I was a little confused.

Some things perplex me to date. First, why should there be a videographer in a reception? Second, why is there a band on a stage singing ‘Gemini Gemini Gavani Gavani?’ Third, why should there be a reception at all?

On Pi’s insistence, who was now more comfortable in his Sherwani, I decided to stop making faces at the cameraman. ‘It’s alright. Just deal with it today. Cooperate with him so you look good in the pictures.’

‘Madam, don’t grin. Please look here. Smile saar. Saar, look here saar. Aiyoo Saar, here here!’

‘Ok, who hired this moron!’ Pi was livid.

Video guy would pull people who were in the middle of greeting us and rearrange them beside us and make them stand straight and look directly into the camera while he rolled his video camera to take action shots. The camera guy clicked a still picture to accompany the action shot just in case we missed who presented that plastic tea cup set.

Ohm… Ohm… Ohm! Slow breaths. There will be an end to this. All I have to do is believe in it.

I protested against the filmy poses and he finally gave in. If I lived to tell this tale, I want to retain some dignity. Not a single wild horse was going to make me hold Pi's cheek with one hand and throw my head back in coy abandon. I told him not to bother with any graphics and just do a simple album and video. 'No frills pa.'

‘Aiyoo, how is that possible madam? For all that money, you will have to get all this only no?’ I considered handing him all my jewelry to disappear with the photos forever.

He wanted to do real time computer simulation and dazzle the crowd. It definitely was a crowd puller as we turned around and performed a fake puja to the screen behind us; he morphed the screen with an image of Thirupathi Balaji Yelumalai Venkatesa of Govinda Govinda fame. The audience could see all this and we had no idea what was happening. As we offered flowers to the screen and folded our hands in devotion, the crowd was yelling how close I need to go to the screen to get the flowers falling in the right angle. Next we had to stand with our side profile to the camera. We were being flown to Singapore on this Honeymoon Airlines with our faces sticking out of two windows, one behind the other. Even they were prudent not to get us booked on adjacent seats.

After a few days 3 humungous albums in sets of three and 3 sets of DVDs arrived at the door in a truck. I left my copy back in India giving the airline-baggage-limit excuse. If they ever needed an extra bed, it would come in handy. My mom teared up as she watched the video for he 10th time on the same day. Now I realized who this was for.


I had no courage to watch the video for the longest time. When I finally did in the company of a few drinks and persistent friends, I was pleasantly surprised to see most of our footage replaced with Simran and Surya’s dancing. Then there was the whole computer graphics deal that would put Spielberg to shame. My head splitting into ten and forming a little trajectory into Pi’s eyes. It’s quite possible I actually performed that stunt under those circumstances. I wish he could have turned me into Kali mata with blood dripping from the corners of my mouth and tongue sticking out. Oh well, that wasn’t necessary. From what I saw of myself in that red saree, I came close.

A year later back in India, just as I walked into my parent’s house, I saw a gigantic laminated picture of the both of us looking completely hassled in our wedding garbs, hanging on the wall. The very picture I detested as my hair was all frizzy and Pi was er... fat. Horror of horrors!

‘The nice fellow that he is, Popular Studio guy presented us with two such laminated pictures, for free!’ my mom gushed. ‘The other one is at your in-law’s.’

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Kilimanjaro Hakuna Matata

(February 17th)- At breakfast, all of us were so upset that this was coming to an end. The porters sang the Kilimanjaro song and the Hakuna Matata song with high spirits. I can't stop humming it even now.









We gave tips to the porters and they were quite jubilant as it was the day they would go home to meet their families after working so hard for us. One of the porters hollered just as we were breaking camp, "See you tomorrow!" like he would do every day. We laughed. I wanted to say 'Hope not', but I knew that I would miss them even in the comfort of my home, my bed and an attached bathroom. Our Good Earth crew did everything to make us feel comfortable in the harshest situation and for that I will be eternally grateful.

The air in Mweka camp was very festive with most of the campers heading back after a successful climb. By 11.40 am, Pi and I reached the Mweka Gate after 45 miles of walking in the wild and that’s where we had our first tryst with the modern world- clean flushable toilets.

Kilimanjaro in the end wasn't just about the mystical mountain with snow in the middle of Africa. It was about the Chagga people, swahili music, the abundant wildlife, the cheer in the air, the strength of people of all ages who attempt to climb Kilimanjaro, the humility of the best at the face of adversity, the shimmering African sky, the unbelievable vegetation, the hot masala tea, and a pletora of memories that will take me to Kilimanjaro whenever I want to be there.

On Top of Africa!

Mweka Camp (February 16th)

It was brilliant! I was so happy to see the stars and at that point nothing else mattered! No storm! I grinned for an hour straight as I looked to the right at the beautiful silhouette of Mt Mawenzi that we completely missed in the last morning’s storm. Mt Mawenzi is the second tallest peak after Kibo on Mt Kilimanjaro. Everywhere I looked there were little dots of light. The unpolluted African sky with its million stars, the headlamps of resolute people moving in a single file. When you looked up in the darkness, you could mistake the headlamps for the stars, which is well and good. We had a long steep climb. But that didn’t bother me a bit. Instead of being in the tent and counting sheep, I was just happy to be out here, in a place like this, with people like this. This was better than the dream I dreamt about Kilimanjaro. I never felt better than I felt now. I followed Herment and just kept going. Somewhere along the way, Freddie brought out some hot tea in a thermos and we had tea in pitch darkness sitting on rocks. We saw some people returning as they couldn’t go on. It was probably heart breaking for them after having come this far.

We reached Stella point as the sun rose over Mt Mwenzi and the clouds way below us. If I could hold my breath any longer, I sure would have. A sun rise that will stay with me for life. Sat down and enjoyed the moment and then continued on to Uhuru peak (which is the highest point on Kilimanjaro). We were almost there. To the right we could see the Reusch crater and to the left was the Furtwangler glacier. None of the photos that I have ever seen of this place does justice, which is why we went there to testify that. I just can’t imagine what Kilimanjaro would look like without the ice cap. We were there- on the Snows of Kilimanjaro, leaving our foot prints. Sadly, the foot prints and the snows are all transient. By 2020, it is said that this would all disappear due to global warming. But what would remain etched permanently in the Rosetta stone of my mind are these memories. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of this unbelievable sight.

The last strech was the most grueling and killing. I had to keep stopping to take a breather. The dawg was walking like Shankar Dayal Sharma had got into him. Pi had severe headache and was squinting and would sit down every 10 meters. Lee kept moving towards the goal, ‘I just want to get this done with!’ and she kept going with the kind of determination that is so characteristic of her.
The four of us reached the famous marker on Uhuru peak (19,340 ft) together at 8.45 am that day. As I approached it, my weariness withered to give way to a strange kind of sadness. When you know you have reached the top and there is no where else to go, but down. The jubilation was in the journey and not the destination. Somehow for me, seeing the final point didn’t hold the significance it held for everyone else. I know Pi shed a few tears of joy. So did Lee. We spent fifteen minutes on the top of Africa hugging each other, clicking pictures and generally hanging around. Suddenly everyone regained their energy. The power of achieving something was incredible. There were times on this mountain when I felt I couldn’t have come this far. All that was forgotten now; we had done it! The view from the top of Africa was stupendous! I could see years of bragging rights apart from the vast African plains. And mountains that once looked formidable when we were on them, looked like mounds from up here.

We started descending quickly so as to alleviate any symptoms of altitude sickness. We reached Barafu camp for lunch after sliding on loose gravel for most of the way down. Layers were being peeled as we headed down. After we reached Barafu Camp, Professor brought out our celebratory pineapple juice. It was a wonderful feeling to be congratulated by all. Feeling accomplished and in good shape, I decided to venture out and brag to the climbers who were yet to summit. Just then, I had a horrible fall on the rocks (face first). I was lucky to have not broken my skull. I looked like I had a small bar fight with a cut lip, a slit on the forehead, bruised hands and feet.

Leaving the gloomy miserable Barafu camp, we limped down to Mweka camp (10,101 ft). Since we had a late start (with everyone feeling out of sorts) and stopping for Kilimanjaro beer, we reached Mweka camp at 9 pm in the dark after maneuvering some treacherous downhill (slippery granite rocks). I fell three times again and by that time I was aching from butt to head. At one point I just sat down in the middle and refused to move. Somehow after the summit, you don’t expect anything more difficult, but this downhill part butchered me.
We had our final dinner in the mountain after 17 hours of constant hiking without a wink of sleep. It was the toughest, yet most exciting day of my life. Every part of my body was badly hurt, but sleep evaded me and for the first time in 6 days, I was out like a lightening. With the summit in our pockets, I guess nothing really worried me now. I could sleep.

Highest Camp on Kili

Barafu Camp (February 15th)- Steep uphill, but only 5 hours long to Barafu Camp (15,000 ft) which is also called the base camp. The weather was very bad- Freezing rain and sleet all the way to camp. Visibility was at an all time low and so was our spirits. With our gloves wet, our hands were freezing. The climb was unrelenting. Oxygen was rare and we were left gasping for breath after every step we took. It would have been a cake walk in lower altitudes, but at these altitudes everything became hard- even saying ‘Damn!’. So we moved slowly and very quietly. For once I didn’t feel compelled to chatter on. Herment gave a silent prayer of thanks. We saw many others struggling here for a good measure. Chipped and Broken rocks that looked like shale were all over the place and beyond that all we could see was an engulfing curtain of haze. We reached Barafu camp in these conditions and were completely spent. We make the summit push tonight, in the dark.

We saw many people who had just summited and come back to base camp by mid day. They didn’t look too cheery either. We were too tired to even talk to them. Barafu camp was on a desolate exposed ridge with a huge clutter of tents placed uncomfortably on huge boulders. There was garbage strewn in places and toilets in inaccessible areas. To get to a toilet, we had to climb over huge boulders and scramble with our hands. This took every ounce of our strength. And then there was the activity of defecating itself. On top of that we had to drink and eat more to combat AMS and couldn’t avoid the input-output cycle. This was way too much work.

We were told to sleep in the afternoon when the sun came out for a brief time and solarized our tents as we baked inside with our 5 layers. As we started peeling the layers, it started freezing again. If anyone was complaining that they weren’t getting enough exercise, I think they were well taken care of. We were woken up at 6 pm for dinner and made to eat a hearty meal. Herment warned us about ‘Loss of Appetite’ at these elevations. Pi wondered what he meant by that as he hoarded the third helping of pasta. Loss of appetite was one side effect of Altitude none of us experienced. The food was just good. Herment, Freddie and Anthony (the head honchos) all walked into our tent as we were finishing up with dinner and stood solemnly. Hermant began to speak (for he knew English) ‘The moment is here my friends. We are finally going to make it to the summit and you all should be very happy to have come this far. I am sure you are very excited for the final summit push that will start at 11 pm tonight. Does anyone have any concerns?’

‘Will the storm go away?’ I asked like a 10 year old.

‘I think it is better if it rains as the temperatures will be warmer.’ This was Herment’s way of putting my mind at ease and seeing the positive of something as horrid as the weather outside. This time I thought he was mad and so I prayed hard for the skies to clear up. I tried sleeping, but was too damn excited and anxious. We nibbled on some snacks at 10.30 pm, wore all clothing we had including 3 pairs of socks and pulled ourselves out of the tents with our head lamps. The Dawg had a hard time moving, let alone pulling himself out of his tent. Looking like well fed polar bears; we were ready to hit the trail. Barely able to move, our guides led the way. Herment offered to carry my bag as he had nothing on him. This one time, I gladly obliged. I can’t thank him enough for this. Even that little pack with water and rain gear became a huge burden as we crawled higher. Better to conserve my energy than to act heroic, I thought. The Dawg spent the majority of his hike calling me a cheater for offloading my bag on Herment and when Herment offered to carry his bag, he happily obliged.

Ready for the midnight summit push

Valentines Day Drill

Karanga Camp (February 14th)- Valentines day! We acknowledged it by going, ‘Guess what, its Valentines Day.’ That’s as much energy we were willing to part with for this day. I was forced to take a picture with Pi and that was that.

Freddie with his transistor
The Dawg dancing to Swahili music

Herment pointed at a vertical wall next to our campsite that we would be climbing to get to Karanga camp. ‘Its very easy hike today’ he said. I had stopped believing this guy..for a good measure too. Last time he said it was easy, I was willing to trade my life for a day in Hell.

Fearless leader- Herment

So there we were, scrambling up the ‘Breakfast Wall’, which is a rather tame name for something that needed all the four limbs to maneuver. Very scary in parts, almost vertical but mostly fun. Gained altitude pretty quick and passed some lovely valleys walking amidst the clouds. Had to stop and look back to sigh at the pretty sight that we would leave behind. After we caught sight of the Karanga camp (which seemed like we could reach it in 5 minutes), there was still an hour of downhill to Karanga valley and uphill.

Antony helping Lee

Karanga valley was the last source of water. So from now on, porters would carry all the water for the rest of the days. We would be very prudent with our usage. No more water balloon throwing activities.

We had hot lunch at Karanga Camp ( 13,300 ft) and spend the afternoon playing cards as hail and rain pounded our tents. I had a terrible headache that wouldn’t go away, so I took Tylenol. The headaches subsided, but came back with a vengeance at night. The weather calmed down and the clouds parted to reveal Kibo for maybe 10 minutes. I watched with awe the symphony of ice and rock, intertwined in harmony. Even as we neared the peak, I had a sense that Kibo was mocking our unwise fortitude. That night when I came out to take a pee break, I could see the city lights from Moshi and Arusha under me, the stars shining over me and the moonlit peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro. There was a lightening and for a brief second, the place lit up to reveal the other tents in the Karanga Camp. I shivered as I plowed my way into the tent and spent sometime doodling in my little dairy. I switched off my head lamp to conserve the batteries and spent some hours flopping like a seal unable to sleep. With depleting oxygen levels, every activity including eating became hard. I would yawn and spend the next few minutes panting and puffing. Acclimatization was in progress as we spent more time in the mountain. It was definitely getting tougher to remain upbeat.

The peak from our tent and the toilet

Doubts creep in

Baranco Camp (February 13th)- Thank God for the Ziploc, I could sleep better (one full hour)and not make half a dozen trips to the stinky bathroom in the middle of the night. Wish it was simple as ‘going to the loo’. It’s a HUGE process. Unzip yourself out of your sleeping bag, quickly wear your outer layers (inner fleece-outer fleece jacket-down jacket-rain pants-winter hat), zip yourself out of the tent, yank on stuck zipper, wrestle with it for 10 minutes, give up, squeeze yourself out from a 10 inch hole like toothpaste, fall in a heap outside, shudder at how cold it is, collect yourself, orient yourself to the general direction you want to travel, move towards origin of smell, trip over rocks in pitch dark, turn on your head lamp, get blinded and trip again, reach bathroom, remember you forgot to get toilet paper, curse, rewind, play, make way back in freezing rain holding nose.

Ziploc- I owe you my life.

Sometimes, I would be mesmerized with the beauty of the night. The zillion stars that light up the African night, like no other place I have seen. The serenity of the mountain, as it is suddenly seems to belong to me alone. Solitude was a treat in Kilimanjaro. Seeing the rounded peak against the moonlight validated my being there, in the night, all by myself, going to pee.

The morning, just when I was declaring how well I slept, I had some symptoms of altitude sickness. I felt like puking while eating breakfast. The Dawg suddenly came to my recue,’ Hold it in! Hold it in! Do not puke!’ I tried tilting my head backwards, then suddenly I ran outside the tent and emptied the contents of my bowels, Malaria pill included. What the?! How does one hold puke in?

I felt very apprehensive about the rest of the days to come. Especially since I couldn’t hold the puke in as I was supposed to. Leela told me not to let this get to me and that sometimes achieving something is just a state of mind. I nodded weakly while lying on the tent floor getting my energy back. Herment, our guide, came to my tent and told me not to worry and that this is quite common. ‘I get sick too’. Herment had this uncanny way of putting people at ease at the most grueling times and I thank him for it even though sometimes we knew he was just saying things that he really didn’t mean. He did it very nonchalantly without creating a fuss. ‘Also if you feel like throwing up again, don’t try to hold in!’ That does it! I am convinced The Dawg is has been sent to twart my plans of making it to the top!

I felt instantly better as we moved away from the camp and Kibo came to full view again. We walked though some amazing expanse of Moorland vegetation (consisting of some huge cacti) and some black volcanic boulders. The vast starkness of the landscape was mind-blowing and we continued to prod on as the air became thinner. We reached an altitude of 14,000 ft after which we would descend to 12,850 ft to camp. This is the best mantra to acclimatize- Climb High and Sleep Low.

The Dawg declared that he was developing cerebral edema and we laughed at him like good friends should. ‘Dude, that's your Gatorade spilling on your ear.'

In fact his delusions in the mountain didn’t stop there. Every time he came back from the shithouse panting and puffing, he would declare he just had childbirth. His kids surely didn’t take after the mom.

I had lunch in a hailstorm. That’s one thing I would advice you not to put in your list to check off. It was brutal till it lasted. Though it was pounding with all kinds of white substance from the skies, it didn't last long. Downhill usually doesn’t bother me and I had a wonderful time admiring the snow covered landscape and then all of a sudden the clouds parted to my left and we got the glimpse of Kibo yet again, suddenly so close and so majestic. My heart skipped a few beats as I looked up. Nothing could be so perfect and nothing could take this moment away from me. I just sat down on a rock and admired this wonderful creation on earth. I could see the Heim and Kerstein Glacier , beautiful, though receding. A few glacial streams that cascaded down as little waterfalls adorned the path. The giant cacti (Senecio Kilimanjari) surrounded the landscape rendering this picture very illusory. I wished hard for one thing. I hoped to remember this for a long time to come. We had walked for 8 hours straight and were completely exhausted when we reached Baranco Camp (12,850 ft) right under the shadow of Kibo. To the other side was the vast plains of Africa and could spot the city of Moshi way below us. We felt very high and very cold.
Pi and the Dawg staggered into camp an hour later looking completely drained off every ounce. The Dawg collapsed in his tent refusing to come out for dinner. We literally dragged him out. The Dawg suddenly realized that this was not easy and for the first time he started having self doubts. He started talking fondly of his wife (This was highly concerning). He was in pain and had slight fever. Pi had a terrible headache, which is usually associated with high altitudes. Lee’s feet were hurting from an ankle sprain. But luckily everyone could speak two words before they retired into their sleeping bags.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

High with no Alcohol

Shira Camp (February 12th)- 'Good Morning ladies!' We heard a booming voice followed by some vigorous shaking of the tent itself. It was still dark. The tent shook again. In my troubled state (I was thinking of lions all night remember) with sore muscles, I managed to open the tent zipper to encounter a cheery Professor with a tray of tea and biscuits. Yikes! I was aghast. I probably died and went to heaven. No I was sure I hadn't, I still felt like I was hit by a truck. We were (or rather Lee was) woken up with bed (in this case sleeping bag) tea every morning by Professor. Ewald is a porter who is also known as Professor as he knew three extra words in English compared to the others. He was quite a sincere and likable chappie who moved on to Pi and the Dawg's tent...'Good Morning brothers!'

As we were about to head out of Machame camp, my water bottle started leaking and spilling most of its content on my pants. Sleep deprived and butt freezing wet, I wasn’t feeling too pleasant as we scrambled through terrain that was steeper than the previous day. The path being very steep and narrow made us stop and let the harried porters pass by. They passed us in huge numbers and we saw ourselves falling behind every group. There were hundreds of porters. By day two, without shower and change of clothes, the stench of body odour was overpowering. There were times when I felt I would throw up. I mean it was sad and all to see them carry 1/2 their weight (sometimes more than their weight) uphill. But my condition was definitely sadder. They at least got paid for this madness. Herment offered to carry my bag , but I refused feeling silly about having difficulties on the second day itself. I also remembered Herment saying todays hike is comparitively tame to what is in store! Couldn’t deal with the fact that the Dawg was racing up the mountain like it was a molehill. Must have been that extra omelette he thulped off my plate. I was out of breath every few minutes and had to stop to catch some air in my lungs. I got loads of advice from Pi from changing my wet pants to keep moving as I was slowing him. If I had some energy, Pi would have been a dead man. I would have regretted that act later of course.

Thick vegetation was replaced by Stoebe Kilimandsharica (twiggy trees covered in cobweb like lichens) Lunch break was on a breathtaking landing where we could see the neon green expanse of Heatherland extending as far as the eye could see. Well fed ravens came for scraps and regaled us with some amusing acrobatics in the air. Mood was elevated instantly. We reached Shira Camp (12,600 ft) soon after and could catch the glimpse of the highest peak of Kilimanjaro (Kibo). Kilimanjaro consists of three peaks- Kibo, Mawenzi and Shira. Uhuru Point on Kibo is the highest point on this mountain that we were aspiring to reach. It was a sight to behold and we watched mesmerized the Snows of Kilimanjaro. Like a massive scoop of chocolate ice-cream with vanilla sauce. The destination seemed so far away and daunting, so high above us that I felt ridiculous to think I even dreamt of being there. Yet Kibo seemed so alluring and beautiful that it would be ridiculous not to be there.

Shira Camp itself was on an open expanse with the perfect triangular outline of Mt Meru looming behind.
Some people were shaving their underarms outside the tent! I couldn’t even think that far- my immediate worries were regarding sleep. Will I be able to catch a few winks tonight? If I had more energy, I would have shaved everyone's underarms and doused it with deo. Sleep came in spurts and by then I decided not to worry myself about it. Agonizing is my forte and I knew that would be something I had to let go in this mountain.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Hold it or Bold it

click to enlarge

I do not miss the pit toilets of Kilimanjaro. It was mandatory we use them as the sheer number of people shitting anywhere can be disasterous to the fragile environment. As much as I value that sentiment, never again! Corporation toilets in Madras smell like green apples in comparison. I 'm bringing my own shit bag next time. It was an adventure, especially the time when there were strong winds while you were at it. Some details even I can leave out.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On the slopes of Kilimanjaro

Machame camp (February 11th, 2008): When I finally got some sleep battling with the power cuts and the mosquito net, it was time to wake up. In fact we were still in bed when Lee and the Dawg called from the reception area all ready. Jumped out of bed and thought about skipping a shower when it dawned upon me that we won’t be having a bath for the next seven days. I acceded to the indulgence and got really late. All packed up, water bottles filled, and slathered with sun screen, we definitely looked like we were ready to ascend the mountain of our dreams. At the new Arusha Hotel, we boarded the Good Earth bus filled with our guides, porters and cooks. Our Head guide introduced himself as Herment Mosha and then he proceeded to introduce us to the others in the Good Earth team. By the time he finished, I had forgotten everyone in the crew except for Justin. Just couldn’t point to him. There would be enough time to figure out everyone as we go.

We passed through the city of Arusha and some dotted villages along the Savanna and couldn’t help notice how similar the landscape was to India. Villagers sitting in a group, talking, combing each others hair, buying vegetable, cycling and some marathoners preparing. So you really don’t see runners in a typical Indian village. We also saw a few drive-through orphanages. As we reached the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro and drove up the slopes through the village of Machame, we were greeted with lush green cultivation of predominantly banana trees. We could never see the mountain even though we strained our eyes in that direction as it was always covered by a veil of clouds, frustratingly so.

At the Machame gate, suddenly there was a population explosion injected with a flurry of activity. The place was filled with people who came to climb the mountain and the guides and porters who took these people up. European tourists in their brand new mismatched clothes and the porters with their hand-me-down mismatched clothes. We being the only brown people were definitely outnumbered by the whites and the blacks. Other than in Thirupati, I am not sure where I saw a bigger crowd. I had no idea Kilimanjaro was so popular. I heard only 50% make it to the top. Well of course, that guy with pink tights can be ruled out right away. There were touts selling rain gear, bandanas and walking sticks at the gate. The guides were busy registering us for the climb, porters were packing and weighing the stuff they would carry, while the we hikers ate boxed lunches and waited for the go ahead sign. Before we were about to ascend, the guide told us that this is no competition and that we must walk extremely slow (pole-pole in Swahili) so we acclimatize better. We started at around 1 pm and walked through the equatorial rainforest, mostly uphill, and mostly difficult. The forest was very lush and beautiful. Endemic trees consist of Macoranga Kilimanjarica and the flower Impatiens Kilimanjarica.

Thankfully our guide, Herment, could sustain long (3 min) conversations in English after which he would lapse into animated Swahili with the assistant guides, Freddie and Antony. They all were good friends and hailed from the same Marangu village on the mountain slopes. Most of the porters and guides belong to the indigenous mountain tribe called Chagga who migrated to the slopes on Kilimanjaro from West Africa many years ago. They are essentially farmers, but have been drawn into the lucrative tourism business lately. Swahili is a very sweet sounding language that I grew to like and learnt a few key words like Jambo (Hello!), Caribu (Welcome). The Tanzanians we met had a very easy going attitude towards everything in general and were cheerful people who never complained. In any situation, you’d hear them say- Hakuna Matata! (No worries!) Everytime I stopped gasping for breath, Herment would say Hakuna Matata! 'Oh come on! I will hakuna.. I better hakuna...its not normal for me to feel like I am going to die.'

When I did have energy, I would probe Herment about his family and the mountain that drew us to Africa. He was very knowledgeable and gave us a lot of pertinent information. Freddie spent most of the time in mountain with a transistor that played loud Swahili music, which seemed to entertain other groups along the way too. The Dawg would suddenly lapse into dappanguttu (South Indian folk dance) for 2 minutes after which he would collapse as he probabaly spent his last ounce of energy appeasing the African Gods. But Swahili music did something strange to him everytime. Antony was the quieter guide who usually led the way. Anytime Antony sensed some trouble, he’d turn around and ask casually, ‘You are Ok?’ It didn’t take me long to understand that any answer he got from us would have resulted in the same reaction from him- to turn back and walk on. One time when Leela was struggling, he turned around and expanded his vocabulary,’ You carry my bag?’ Leela gave one look at his humungous backpack and shuddered. She instantly felt better and moved on without a sigh.

Our first glimpse of the peak

We reached Machame Camp (9,900 ft) at sun set and found to our surprise that the porters had already set our camp for us. Sumptuous dinner was served and we ravenously consumed it. Soup, Rice, Vegetable stew, fruits and of course the famous hot tea that they insisted we drink all the time. Having backpacked in the US a lot and not being used to porters and cooks, we felt all this was way too much luxury in backcountry. Pi went on about how terrible it was to have a chair to sit on when we could very well manage sitting on the floor of the tent and eat. Infact, after day 3, the same Pi wanted a ski lift to get him to the top of the mountain. Tired and aching in every joint, we tried to stretch a little, but eventually fell into our sleeping bags and tried to sleep. I am a light sleeper and have trouble falling asleep in the best of the situations. I spent the most of the night reading a book that spoke about Sudanese children being eaten by lions on their way to refugee camps in Kenya. In detail. Now whose great idea was this book? I sat up all night counting Sudanese kids and watching Lee sleep like a baby. How would it be if a lion came and ate her?

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Exploring Arusha

I decided to step away from the breakfast bar (where the three of us seemed to be hovering around for hours ) and explore the gardens while enjoying some solitude with my camera. There was Raphael standing among the flowers beaming at me. I grinned back wondering if I should strike a conversation. ‘Do you know what this flower is?’ he asked.

I was confident about this one.’ I don’t know,’ I said. I like to imbibe life without having to remember names, whether it is an album, movie, book or a freaking flower. Checked off from my list of career options are Taxonomist and horticulturist.

He looked hurt and said it was called the Bird of Paradise. He repeated it once more so I remember.

Then he grabbed me by my hand and took me to another corner of the garden, behind a bush. Just as I was about to scream for help, he asked me to name another flower. Slightly perturbed, I examined the flower. ‘It could be…..’ Before I could complete the sentence, he pulled out the little flowers from the stem, crushed them in his palm and thrust it into my nostrils.

“Ahh, Lavender” I said profoundly.

He blushed and looked very proud. He introduced himself as the head gardener. Now I understood this over-the-top behavior as it had had me perplexed for a minute. So the botany lessons went on for a long time till he moved on to chameleons and squirrels. Raphael had put his blood and sweat into this garden and it was evident in the way he spoke about his plants. He didn’t know the names of his daughters, but remembered obscure plant names like Patenestasia. I gave him a couple of dollars for this unexpected tour and he beamed again. Its amazing how much Raphael had managed to grow in this area. Its amazing how much of variety actually grows in this equatorial climate.

Walked up the Dawg’s room where the party apparently was. Both Pi and the Dawg were watching Aljazeera TV and all over the floor were the Dawg’s hiking stuff. ‘Hey di, pack this up for me no. My wife gave up last week in Philly and now I have no one to do it for me.’
Took a few deep breaths. Congratulated myself for marrying a saint like Pi. Thanks to the Dawg, my marriage suddenly looked bright. I started the packing process. Remember I had even walked him to the store and helped him buy this shit. And he couldn't even pack!

‘Where are the rest of the socks?’

‘That’s all I have di.’

‘What? You need a pair of socks a day! You have only 2 pairs for 7 days! You need to really look after your feet or you’ll get blisters.’ Going by the fact that he hadn’t even changed his T-shirt from the time I saw him in the Detroit Airport (which was 35 hours ago), I didn’t think socks really mattered.

‘You didn’t even tell me to buy the socks.’

‘So then why do you have freakin six bags of trailmix (nuts and raisins)? Are you panning on eradicating all the hunger in Tanzania?’ I yelled. ‘Why did I spend three hours making a list and emailing it to you? To wipe my virtual ass with it?’

‘But you never told me to buy the socks that day.’

‘Arrrrgggh! Ok, where is the hiking pole that I had you buy for Lee?

‘I didn’t bring it. It’s at home!’

Next he looks at my bandana and wants the same one. ’Why didn’t you get me something like the one you have? I am taking it. You can have mine.’ He grabbed mine and flung his bandana away.

That does it! I took some painkillers and sprayed some insect repellent on him hoping to get rid of the pest.

We decided to walk into the city of Arusha and maybe I can hire some local thugs for this job. If his wife becomes a widow and his kid becomes fatherless, even the devils cant make me guilty at this point.

Just as we walked out of the gate, a guy approached me and started talking about Abishek Bacchan in good English. ‘Very good actor. By the way madam, you must look at these necklaces. They will look so good on you.’ He pulls out some trinkets from his pocket and tells me, ‘For you 20 dollars!’ I shake my head and walk on. We are met with many more and they just follow us, bargaining and lowering the cost. I looked at the guy and told him to leave us alone. He stopped abruptly, turned around to the rest of the touts and sternly said,’ Can’t you see fellas, Madam is getting annoyed by your constant nagging. Could you all please leave?’

They all did except him. He followed us to the restaurant and ushered us in and then said he would wait outside. In the restaurant, we decided to order ugali. But it so happens that we are in the midst of some African conspiracy and had to order from the various curries and chappatis available. Very tasty, very Indian. My bet is that there exists no African dish and hence no ugali.

As we walked around Arusha (which reminds you of a city in Kerala), I jumped up with joy pointing at a distance. There it was, behind the buildings, rising above the clouds, Mount Kilimanjaro! A shiver ran down my spine. The first sighting! We gaped at it for a while mesmerized. A local passed by and we smiled. We asked if he had been on Kilimanjaro.

‘No, that mountain you see is Mt.Meru’.

‘Erm, Yeah yeah, it does not look like Kilimanjaro of course.’ To think we were planning on climbing Kilimanjaro the next day.

Leela finally arrived late that evening from an adventurous bus ride and cancelled flights. This was the first time I was seeing her, I was eagerly waiting her arrival on the hotel steps. Her bus pulled in and I ran to hug her. Shocked, disheveled, completely disoriented and 4 feet tall. Under the circumstances, she was still very cheerful. Yeah, inspite of her height. Her stories of the bus ride had me in splits even though I probably should have shown some sympathy. She started emptying her really heavy suitcase to repack into the duffle bag- 50 notebooks (did I mention she is a journalist sort), 100 pencils, 30 wet wipes (She is also a clean freak sort), 2 torch lights and a headlamp (a paranoid sort), sandals and wollen scraves (a confused sort), 2 cameras (a rich sort) and of course world famous dates from Dubai.

We started to pack her duffle bag with the stuff that she'll actually need on the climb. It seemed like this packing would never end for me. If someone gave me a death wish or pack wish, I would have gladly walked into the diamond studded coffin. But then I had to make a good first impression on Lee and the poor thing had a stressful journey. Also her case was excusable as she could not have packed her stuff before. I had brought most of the hiking gear from Pittsburgh.*halo* Since Dubai has no concept of outdoors, they don’t sell outdoor gear (except wollen scraves). She just had to order everything in the US and take a huge leap of faith that it would all fit her. In fact, most of the stuff did as she tore out the labels and wore them one by one before packing.

That night I was quite excited about the climb that I could hardly sleep.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Setting Foot on African Soil

We saw ‘The Dawg’ at the Detroit Airport fully geared up with all the regalia to be worn during the actual climbing. With a water tube jutting out of his backpack and swirling around his neck to finally hang precariously near his nose, he looked more like a patient wheeled out of the ICU. I was quite shocked to see more of him that I had imagined. He was easily 30 pounds heavier now.

'Dude, are you wearing all your layers too?'

‘One website advised to load on carbohydrates before departure. They didn’t say from how many months before departure.’

‘Well, did the website say anything about training for this climb?’

I should have realized The Dawg has limited comprehension. Even when it comes to emails. In reply to my 300 words email, I would get an answer from him that would consist of three words that would bear no context to the mail itself. ‘I am Bored!’

Or maybe it did have a context.

We reached Nairobi after flying over America, Europe and Africa. The snow-covered Alps in Switzerland was a huge contrast to the vast dessert of Libya. We met a bunch of hikers in Nairobi who we would meet up again in Kilimanjaro. We learnt that Leela’s flight got cancelled from Dubai and she would try to get on the next flight. We felt so bad for her, but all that melted away when we learnt that she would be taking a private chartered plane from Nairobi to Kilimanjaro. Next thing we learn the chartered flight was full and she was going to take an armed vehicle. Finally she managed to get into a rickety bus and got to the destination just in time. Her journey to Arusha from Nairobi is probably going to become a best seller right away, so I will withhold from giving away too much of the plot. She was holed in a bus with a mad woman, a rapist, a thief and a lion wrestler.

At the Kilimanjaro airport, The Dawg was detained for not having taken Yellow Fever vaccination. He was hoping to slip through the cracks of the Tanzanian health department that was checking for the documents. Since he was overweight, they caught him and finally poked him. He came out simmering and was convinced that the whole world was out to get him. From then on, he stopped trusting. He complained that I had not told him about the vaccination. Pi had to hide my pocketknife quickly.

Warm air, starry night, gulmohar trees- Tanzania did feel a lot like South India. Outside the airport we were greeted by David, the computer guy from Good Earth Tours. He took us to our hotel in Arusha (the nearest town to the mountain). David spoke in his lovely African accent about the different tribes in Tanzania and how Christian missionaries helped them get to where they are. They are now Christians and have names like David. He seemed very proud about this. This topic has been debated to death between Pi and I (with Pi very skeptical about the intensions of missionaries). I wanted a pleasant ride and wanted David to do much of the talking. I started sending frantic signals to Pi not to began some heated discussion on this topic when the Dawg jumped up and went, “So David, don’t you think these missionaries are buying you in the name of charity?”

So you can just imagine what ensued. I just closed my eyes and prayed that our tour company wouldn’t
a) poison us while we are on the mountain
b) throw us off a cliff
c) take us the wrong way and leave us to fend for ourselves like Hansel and Grethel
d) do all of the above unless we all converted

After this awkward discussion, The Dawg tried to do damage control by asking David to give him a list of great Tanzianian music. Kuch kuch hota hai and Oops I did it again featured in the top 10.

At 2 am, David took leave after dropping us off at the New Arusha hotel where Bill Clinton had apparently stayed- probably when he was trying to hide from paparazzi. Actually speaking it wasn’t bad at all. One of the nicer hotels with a lovely courtyard garden, an uber rich desi owner and an inefficient front desk. A few towels missing, the mosquito screen fluttering away from the window shouldn’t be that much of a concern. It definitely confused the mosquitoes. And oh, we had to start using our headlamps in the hotel itself whenever there were power outages. Sometimes rudely in the middle of watching Aljazeera on TV. The hotel was still very welcome after the 24-hour flight from Pittsburgh. We went up to our rooms salivating for local fare and decided to order some ugali that David was talking about. From the choice of Burger, pasta and steak, pasta seemed as close to African food as it could get. Pi looked at the dessert menu and did a little jig when he noticed chocolate mousse. When the order arrived, we saw some guey pink mass. ‘Sir, that’s passion fruit mousse. We didn’t have chocolate mousse. It’s one and same.’ We got billed for it.

A little observation on passion fruit- it’s better inside a face cream than a fruit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

To the top and back

Unfortunately I haven’t even had a chance to thank you all for being so supportive and wishing us well. As you could tell from Lee’s post, WE MADE IT TO THE TOP OF KILIMANJARO!!! What an amazing experience. I can go on and on….but before all that I want say- Thank you! … for goading me on (I could have died, you freaks!!!). To whoever advised me to take the ipod, I want to kiss you! (Just as I figured that the guy is Smiley, I quickly withdraw that offer.)

Thank you also for all those who donated to my cause. I raised $3,500 from this fundraiser! It will all go towards constructing a fish farm in Mali.

Yes, Kilimanjaro was tougher than I had ever imagined. Much tougher than coming out of my mom’s stomach. (yes, babies have it tough too. They just can’t express themselves as eloquently as the moms).

It has been a month since I am back, but I can’t stop thinking about Tanzania. Someone take me back….just one more time. So unfortunately for some, I will attempt at recreating all the good times (as and when time permits). The bad times will be exaggerated so that some of you don’t jump up and say, ’Hmmm. I could have done that too!’ Even Edmund Hillary didn't climb Kilimanjaro!

[Also posted in my other hiding place]

Sunday, January 13, 2008

EWB Fundraising Update

Thanks to all those who contributed to the Kilimanjaro EWB fundraiser. We have also reached out to several corporate sponsors and hope to receive similar enthusiasm from them. I am very happy to have received this kind of support from you (in words and donations) without which all this would have been a daunting dream.

If you had planned on contributing and have not already done so (or if you are hearing about this for the first time), there is still a month to go before I start the climb. I still haven't made my goal of $5000.

Here’s the link through which you can donate. Paypal has been made an option now.

Update on the Mali Project- We at Engineers Without Borders, Pittsburgh, have chartered out a project plan, schedule, budget and are looking at various sources for more funds. We have been working over the Christmas break on a mock design of the fish farm. We are excited about our first trip to Mali in March of this year to understand the community and bring back with us all the information needed to successfully design this project. We will make another trip during December to construct the fish farm.

Thanks again for all the support. All your proceeds will go towards constructing the fish farm and training villagers to sustain the business as a steady source of much needed income for their community.

Regarding the Kilimanjaro Climb Preparations, check out the blog.