Moshi, Tanzania The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done: Part 2

Day 4 – The Surface of Mars

Now it’s getting serious. We’d had a pretty leisurely time those first three days, but day four would take us up another full kilometer – much higher than I’d ever been in my life.

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Nervous optimism was the flavor of the moment. You could feel it all around the camp. Beyond the ridge, the big old lady in white was waiting.

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Andy came by. “The weirdest thing just happened. One of the porters came up and asked if he could have his picture taken with me. He put his arm on my shoulder and smiled, his friend took the picture, and they walked away. What was that about?”

“I know what it was about.”

“What?”

“They think you’re Elijah Wood.”

“Fuck off!”

“I’m not kidding. You look like Elijah Wood. They think you’re Frodo.”

Andy didn’t care to continue the discussion. It’s true, though. He’s got those same beady eyes.

Here’s where I did a really bad thing.

While Mecke was getting ready, I took off. Looking back now, I can’t really explain it in any sensible way. I was ready to go, I was eager to go, so I took off by myself and left Andy and Mecke behind.

There weren’t any personality problems. We all got along just fine, to my knowledge. But I wanted to be alone and – God this really sounds incredibly stupid – I didn’t want to worry about keeping a slow pace. I was too anxious. I wanted to get up there and get it over with.

A short way in, I got my first really clear view of the summit.

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That’s the final ascent. It’s like a whole other mountain on top of an already very large mountain. And it’s clearly much steeper than anything that comes before it.

Gradually throughout the morning, the plant life became smaller and smaller until I cleared a hill and saw a thin, undisturbed path stretching on for miles in front of me. I had suddenly arrived on another planet.

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I sat down for a snack. Before leaving for Africa, my sister Jen had showered me with peanuts and granola bars to take on my trip. I’d been rationing them for weeks so I’d have plenty for Kilimanjaro. This turned out to be a really good thing.

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Thanks Jen.

A group of porters stopped next to me and I offered them all some honey roasted peanuts, which they gratefully accepted. They’d never experienced the wonders of honey roasting before, so their heads kind of exploded. I gave them each another round.

I had made some new friends. They stuck by me for the rest of the day.

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We didn’t have much we could say to each other, but I really enjoyed being an honorary member of their pack.

I got one of them to take a picture of me on the surface of Mars.

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It’s time for some more information on porters. This is stuff I got off the web after coming home. I will now regurgitate it in my own words without giving credit to the source, cause I can’t be bothered trying to google my way back to it.

Porters on Kilimanjaro die at a rate of about three a month. It’s hard to confirm that figure precisely, cause no one really bothers to keep track and it’s certainly not something the park authority wants to publicize.

Many of them die of exhaustion. The food they eat comes directly out of their pay, so they get by on as little as possible. When a climber offers them a snack or part of a meal, I now realize, it’s no small thing. It would be ludicrous for them to say no, as it actually impacts their chances of survival.

Many more die from hypothermia near the top. They have very little to keep them warm, and they have to spend a night in cheap, thin tents at 15,000 feet.

Others die from mountain sickness. While the guides watch climbers constantly and rush them down the mountain at the first sign of onset, the porters just have to deal with it if it happens.

They get tipped around $10 for their six days on the mountain. This usually exceeds what they’re paid by the tour company who hires them – or at least it would if they actually got the tips. The climbers are told to give all the tip money to the guide and specify how much should be distributed to each porter. It’s up to the guide to make good on that arrangement, and often they don’t.

Guides choose their porters at the start of each climb, so they’re known to deduct a fee out of the tip money for the privilege of being chosen.

It’s kind of like a pyramid scheme. The porters stick with it and tolerate being screwed in the hopes of one day becoming guides so they can screw those beneath them.

Enough on porters. Basically, it sucks and I’m embarrassed for briefly having thought otherwise.

Stopped at this luxurious bathroom in lush surroundings.

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We pass ed through the saddle; a small valley between two hills as you round the bend toward a straightaway. At the end of the straightaway, a deceptively steep hill leads to Kibo hut, the final campsite.

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Distance: 9.2 kilometers
Altitude Change: +983 meters
Walking Time: 3 hours
Average Pulse: 147
Final Altitude: 4703 meters

I’d moved briskly all day and hadn’t seen another Caucasian for hours; just a long string of porters in a hurry to claim decent tents for the night.

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I checked in and was directed to a dorm room with twelve bunks packed close together. I flopped down and rested for a solid hour before the next climber showed up.

When Mecke and Andy arrived later in the day, Mecke was visibly pissed at me. It was pretty much the dumbest thing I could have done at the worst time.

I have no excuse for myself. I felt like going at my own pace, so I did.

The mood around the camp felt a little bit like that scene at the start of Saving Private Ryan when they’re in the landing barge waiting to be dumped out on Omaha beach. No one was about to be mowed down by bullets or vaporized by mortars, but the risks are nevertheless significant. We knew not everyone was going to reach the top. It was even possible that someone might die – it happens to about a dozen climbers a year. Everyone was quiet and focused.

As the days goes on, the climb becomes a more intensely personal experience until finally it’s happening entirely within your head. So we were all off fighting our own mental battles and no one had much to discuss.

A couple people had already been hit with mountain sickness and were on their way down. The signs are blue lips, lack of coordination, and poor judgment. The first symptom I can deal with, but those other two are not things you want happening in this type of endeavor. So another facet of the mental battle is constantly evaluating the sharpness of your faculties – the very same faculties you’re using to evaluate your sharpness.

It’s tricky.

The camp looks out across the bald plains at Mawenzi peak, a slightly lower but far more scenic summit than our destination, Uhuru peak. As the sun went down, Andy and I photographed it obsessively. I can’t settle on which picture is the best, so here’s a bunch that look exactly the same.

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The trail out of Kibo is obscured by rocks, so we couldn’t see much of what was ahead of us. All we knew was there would be a long, steep climb to a place called Gilman’s point, followed by a shorter, more level walk across the top of the mountain to the absolute summit of Uhuru.

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Mecke came by and introduced us to Joseph. Joseph was an assistant guide who would be joining us for the final ascent. It was not explicitly stated, but the purpose of the assistant guide is to bring up the rear and watch for signs of mountain sickness, and also so they can split us up in case one of us has a medical emergency.

I was hoping for a massive dinner that would give me enough energy to make it through the next day. Instead we each got one bowl of stew. I finished the meal only slightly less hungry than when I started.

Kibo hut consists of a few tiny dorm rooms with 12 bunks in each. This is smart because crowding keeps the rooms much warmer. It might have been annoying to have to sleep in a tight cluster with so many strangers, but no one got much sleep anyway, so it didn’t really matter. We all stared at the ceiling for five hours, waiting anxiously for the door to creak open, signaling the start of the main event.

Day 5 – We Have Reached Cruising Altitude

There’s a very small window of time, just after dawn but before the morning clouds roll in, when it’s safe and warm enough to reach the summit. For this reason, the final ascent has to begin at the slightly less than ideal hour of midnight. With no electricity, we shuffled around in the dark, getting our gear on and wolfing down a plate of tea and crackers.

On Mecke’s instruction, I left the Timberland shoes I’ve been wearing since Day 1 and put on the uncomfortable boots I rented. Unfortunate but necessary.

Mecke, Joseph, Andy, and I gathered at the start of the trail, donned our silly head-mounted flashlights, and off we went in single file.

The next few hours don’t sit in my memory the way normal memories do. It’s dreamlike in the sense that time passed very strangely. If you spent a day in solitary confinement, time would move agonizingly slow, but afterwards it might seem to have happened in a short duration because there’d be no sensory experience to give you a reference point for time’s passing. It was sort of like that.

Please excuse the change in tense.

I look down, watch the feet in front of me, and try to replicate the movement and timing. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step. Step.

Don’t look up. Don’t think about how far you’ve gone. Shut your brain down. Just keep stepping.

This isn’t so bad. I can do this for a while. I’m just walking.

Step. Step. Step. Step.

I look up. This is steep. There’s a lot of blackness in front of me. How much ti me has passed? How long is t his going to go on for? How much have I done? 10%? 20%? 2%? How are other people doing? I see little snakes of light further down the mountain. Everyone’s doing it. Just keep going. I’ll get there.

I’m tired. I didn’t get enough to eat. It’s getting steeper. I’m very cold.

Step. Step. Step. Step.

I can’t feel my toes or my fingers. That’s okay. Just a little bit numb. Keep on going.

I lost my balance. Stumbled a bit. When do we rest? It’s too cold to rest. We have to keep moving. But I’m so tired.

“How you doing, Matt?” It’s Andy.

“I’m okay. How about you?”

“Fine. This isn’t so bad.”

“Yeah.”

Too tired to talk. Concentrate on the steps. Don’t look up. Don’t look up.

I wonder what the stars look like?

…Oh my God.

I’ve seen star-filled skies in Micronesia where the billion shimmering points of the Milky Way galaxy stretch from one horizon to the other in a wide band. I laid on a hill in Mongolia and watched satellites pass overhead, visible to the naked eye. I sat on the deck of a ship deep in the Indian Ocean and saw constellations pop out of the blackness as clearly as they might have been for Greek astronomers. But I’ve never seen the full night sky look the way it does on Kilimanjaro, above the haze of the lower atmosphere, showing me exactly what forever looks like.

Not some postage stamp view out the window of a 737. The whole damn thing. IMAX. It never occurred to me. 20,000 feet above sea level, of course it’s going to be fantastic. But I can’t stop and look. I’ve got to keep walking. So beautiful but I can’t even stop to look.

We have to be close to halfway. How many hours have we been going? Is the sun rising yet? No. Nothing. When do we rest?

“When do we rest?”

“Almost to cave. We stop there. 3 minutes.”

Step. Step. Step. Step.

Almost to cave. Almost to cave. What is he talking about? This isn’t “almost” anything. We just keep going. I’m exhausted. I need to stop. No, I can’t stop. Everyone will freak out. Wait until Mecke calls a rest. We’re almost there.

Jesus God! Where is this fucking cave?

“Okay. Here is the cave. Stop for 3 minutes. No more.”

“I need more than 3 minutes, Mecke. I’m exhausted.”

“Can’t stop long. It’s very cold. Have to keep going to stay warm.”

The cave isn’t much of a cave. I drink some water. The bottle is frozen so I only get a sip. I open an energy bar. My hands aren’t working very well. I can’t hold the bar steady. It’s solid as a rock. I nearly chip a tooth trying to get the thing down.

“Okay. Time to go. Matthew.”

“Yes!”

“How are you?”

“I’m good. Just a second.”

Shit. I can’t do this. I can’t get up. Maybe I can stall them.

“How about a picture?”

I try to hold it steady and convince my fingers to push the button.

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Andy’s having a great time. He’s laughing and smiling. Goddam Frodo Baggins.

I get up and see a sign marking 16,000 feet. We’ve gone less than 800 with 2400 more to go until Gilman’s Point, and then another hour and a half to Uhuru, and then all the way back down.

I can’t do this. I’m going to die here.

Only a few steps past the cave and already I’m exhausted again. My feet are really gone now. Frozen stumps. We’re only a quarter of the way and I’ve got nothing left. I keep going as long as I can and then I collapse on a rock.

“Matthew!”

Get it together. If you’re response isn’t clear and alert, they’ll take you down to camp.

“Yes!”

“How are you?”

“I’m okay. I just need a minute.”

I get up and carry on. I’m instantly exhausted again. Stopping just makes me colder, but I can’t walk straight anymore. I’m tripping and stumbling all over the place. They can see it too. I collapse on another rock.

This is not my proudest moment.

“Matthew!”

“I just need a minute!”

“No stopping! You will get cold.”

“I’m already cold.”

“Matthew!”

“Okay!”

This happens again and again. It gets so every time we pass a rock, I feel the eyes on me waiting for me to fall. And I do.

“Matthew!”

“Yes!”

“How are you?”

“I feel dizzy.”

“Dizzy?”

“Lightheaded. Like I’m gonna be –“

And then I am. Eight times. Until there’s nothing left in my stomach.

This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. If I had any idea, I never would’ve considered it. I think I am going to die.

There’s vomit everywhere. I’m shaking. I can barely stand. This is altitude sickness.

Joseph puts his hand on my shoulder, leans in close and whispers, “You are stronger than you know.”

…And I realize he’s right. And I realize there are angels.

Turning back means walking down everything I just walked up. It’s a known quantity that I can’t bear to think about. The other direction, up, at least that’s still blackness and I don’t know exactly how bad it will be. I’m obviously not thinking clearly, but it seems like a better option. I’m not thinking clearly because I don’t have enough oxygen in my brain and I’m choking on carbon dioxide.

“I’m going to continue, but I don’t want to slow Andy down. If Joseph can stay with me, I’ll keep going.”

“I will stay with you,” Mecke says. “Joseph, go with Andy.”

They head off. It’s just me and Mecke now. Long way to go.

I moan and wail like a baby with each step. I collapse every fifty feet or so. Mecke looks worried. His training is to grab me by the armpit and haul me back to Kibo hut as quickly as he can without killing me, but he’s not doing that.

“Matthew!”

“Yes!”

“How are you?”

“I’m okay!”

I’m not okay. For the last hour I’ve been ignoring a pressing abdominal emergency and it’s getting worse. I’m on a 40 degree incline, I can’t feel my extremities, and I can’t stop shaking. I’m not currently capable of a much-needed number 2. There is a looming possibility that I might reach the summit under very unpleasant circumstances. This is difficult to come to terms with.

I explain the situation to Mecke. “I have medicine,” I tell him. “It’s in my bag.”

“Give me your bag.”

I pass it to him and he holds it while I work on the zipper. I take my glove off and it’s hard just to close my thumb and forefinger together and pull it open. He shines his light in the bag. I have a packet of Immodium, but it’s in one of those peel-back, child-proof foil packages. Peeling is another activity I’m not capable of at the moment.

But wait. There is another option. The travel doctor had me fill a prescription for Cipro, a stronger anti-diarrheal medicine that comes in a twist-cap bottle. I think maybe I can twist.

I hold the bottle in one hand and slowly close the other around the top. I twist. It opens. I tilt the bottle, my arm shaking terribly now, and hold my other hand under it to catch a pill. I’m like a junky in withdrawal. The pill falls in my hand. Up to my mouth. Swallow. Okay.

Maybe it’s psychosomatic, but inside a minute the problem is gone – or at least delayed. Onward Christian soldier.

A little bit farther and we hear screaming from up ahead. Rooster sounds, like a hillbilly who just won a pie-e atin g contest. I don’t know what it means, so I keep going.

We’re not walking up a slope anymore. We’re climbing rocks. It’s hard pulling myself up, but better because I have things to lean on. And because I know it means we’re close.

Very close.

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There’s a huddle of people on the jagged rocks around the sign. No one is in very good shape. Andy’s not here.

“Matthew!”

“Yes!”

“Can you continue?”

I look out and see the first thin slice of the sun peeking over the horizon.

I get a telegram from my body.

NOTHING LEFT DOWN HERE STOP THE KINDLING IS GONE AND WE ARE BURNING THE LAST OF THE FURNITURE STOP YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN NOW STOP MAYBE IF YOU HADN’T BARFED UP THAT ENERGY BAR STOP GOOD LUCK WITH EVERYTHING STOP SEE YOU AROUND

“Matthew!”

“Yes!”

“Can you continue?”

I don’t think about the months of training. I don’t think about how it’ll feel to go down in failure. I don’t think about the very real damage I’m doing to my feet letting them stay frozen for this long. I just look at the sun coming up. This is not a courageous moment.

“Let’s go!”

I can’t believe what I just heard. Did I say that? I must have. Mecke is walking away from me now. I follow him.

Everyone complains about how you can’t appreciate the view from the top of Kilimanjaro. It’s true. By the time you get there, you’re appreciation receptors have shut down completely. You’re in survival mode. This did nothing for me.

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Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano. We walk along the rim of its massive crater. I try not to think about what would happen if I slipped.

The air is thin, but I’m walking on level ground and it’s getting warmer. I can see the summit in the distance. And I can see Andy walking towards me.

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We hug and I’m freaking holding back tears.

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That was him screaming like a rooster from Gilman’s Point. He figured I’d turned back and he couldn’t wait any longer, so he went on by himself. We’re very happy to see each other.

The summit is only a little way’s off, but he’s been up for a long time now and has to start moving down. We say goodbye and Mecke and I keep going.

We make it. And here is what I think: I didn’t get myself to the top of this mountain. Mecke, anti-diarrheal medication, and the Rocky theme music got me to the top of this mountain.

Everyone wants their picture taken in front of the sign. People tend to linger there, which is understandable. But waiting in line isn’t fun.

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After that, I tackle the essential task of doing a clip for the dancing video. For all Mecke’s virtuous qualities, he’s not the best cameraman in the world and he has some trouble operating the device.

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I decide the sign isn’t working and if I make myself a smaller target, he’ll have a better chance of keeping me in frame.

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We walk back to Gilman’s victorious. The sun is almost making things pleasant.

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Looking down, I suddenly realize why they make us do the climb in the dark of night. If we could see what was ahead of us, no one would ever make it.

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Even in daylight, the walk is treacherous. It’s steep downhill with no breaks. To get us back faster, Mecke breaks from the zigzag path and plows a new trail straight down the mountain. It’s essentially skiing in shoes. We move quickly, but I slip and fall several times. The wrong landing can do 800 kinds of damage to my knees and ankles. I’m lucky.

Another guy in front of me falls and hurts himself pretty bad.

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The snow starts to clear up and I can see Kibo hut in th e distance.

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After nine straight hours of pain, I make it back to the hut. Andy takes this the moment I sit down. I don’t look good.

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Andy is in slightly better shape.

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He is the man of steel.

They feed us lunch, but we have to eat quickly. It’s not over yet. We still have to walk to the next hut a couple hours away.

I put my Timberlands back on.

I’m feeling much better by this point. Halfway to the next hut, Mecke calls for a rest. I moan and wail as I collapse on a rock in a self-depricating mockery of my earlier performance. Mecke and Joseph find this hilarious and I feel a little bit less pathetic for acknowledging how much of a crybaby I am.

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We walk some more and then we’re done.

Distance: 17.2 kilometers
Altitude Change: +1188 meters, -2171 meters
Walking Time: 11 hours 30 minutes
Average Pulse: 137
Summit: 5891 meters
Final Altitude: 3720 meters

We check into our hut and I take a look at my feet, which I haven’t heard from since about 1am last night. I can move them, but there’s no feeling at all.

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I don’t really know what to make of the situation, but I don’t care. I’m alive and I’m done and I’m ready to sleep.

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We share our room with a chain-smoking German and a guy from Iceland.

I have nothing against smokers in general, but you folks have got to accept that your habit puts certain limitations on your body and smoking and mountain-climbing is kind of an either-or proposition. Not to mention cigarette butts aren’t really an attractive landscape feature – especially in a national park.

The Icelandic guy is a water maniac. He bought several gallons of it before the climb and paid an extra porter to carry it up for him. I’m unclear on the benefits of this decision, but he seems pretty proud of himself.

In the middle of the night, the German smoker guy jumps out of his bed and screams at the top of his lungs:

“SCHNELLER!”

He opens his eyes and realizes where he is, then lies down and goes back to sleep.

Andy and I don’t know what that was all about, but he is thenceforth dubbed Dr. Strangelove.

Day 6 – “Get Me Off This Goddam Rock!”

We now return to our regularly scheduled verb tense.

The last day is a blur. We were done. We left early in the morning and set a brisk pace. No more concerns about altitude or stamina. It was simply a matter of how quickly we could get back to our hotel to start eating, drinking, and lying in our warm, comfy beds.

Overnight I’d gotten feeling back in all my toes except the two big ones, which were still completely numb. It was like walking on peg legs – or at least peg toes – but while slightly worrisome, it didn’t slow me down at all.

Andy, for his part, had two bad knees that took even more abuse going downhill than they took going up. I can honestly say that aside from sufferers of autism and Aspberger’s syndrome, I’ve never known anyone with as absolutely ironclad of a will as Mr. Andrew Payne. Part of what makes him such a fantastic programmer is his intense ability to shut out all distractions and focus on his goal. I now realize this ability towers over athleticism as the most essential quality in climbing mountains. Andy can take pain levels that would render me into a sniveling panty-waist and tuck them away for later consideration.

He went down the mountain like a steam roller while I raced ahead like a frightened squirrel. I used the downward slope to maintain a controlled fall that gave me occasional bursts of speed, but inevitably I’d hear him coming up behind me at a constant velocity. In my head, I saw myself flattened into a pancake beneath his unwavering footfalls, so I kept moving in unbalanced leaps onto wet rocks, risking all sorts of injury to ankle and ass.

Towards the end we started passing groups that were just starting their climbs. Most of them just stared, the way I’d done a few days earlier – trying to read from my expression a little bit of what I’d been through. A couple people asked if we’d made it. It was clear from their tone what they wanted to hear: “No. It was too much for me. I was weak and unprepared. I will never attempt anything like this again.”

While all of this is true, I didn’t say it. Just smiled and nodded and wished them good luck.

Andy and I continued our steam roller game for the rest of the morning, stopping only once, very briefly, for food. Mecke kept pace with Andy, and when we got to the bottom he said it was the fastest he’d ever gone down the mountain.

Here’s Andy about three seconds after reaching the end of the trail.

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Distance: 18.7 kilometers
Altitude Change: -1860 meters
Walking Time: 3 hours 30 minutes
Average Pulse: 152
Final Altitude: 1860 meters

We were super-early, so we waited around a couple hours at the base camp for our van to take us back to the hotel. Mecke presented us with certificates confirming we made it to the summit – which I’m sure will be essential in refuting the claims of all those player-haters out there. In return, we presented Mecke with all the tips.

Andy and I had spent a gr eat deal of time discussing how much to tip. I’ve found that tipping is very stressful for Australians, even those who’ve lived in the states for years. It’s an unfamiliar custom that makes no sense to them but they feel obligated to do it properly – sort of like high fives for me. Keeping in mind the unsubtle recommendations of the tour company, we settled on $40 for Mecke, $15 for Joseph, and $15 for each of the three porters. Mecke was satisfied with what we gave him and the porters, but he made it clear that Joseph had to be paid more than the regular porters. I don’t think it was a coincidence that Joseph was standing right next to him at the time.

Andy recoiled in shame, having failed to satisfy with an amount we’d put a lot of thought into. We stepped back and he turned to me, intensely concerned, wondering what happens now. I reached in my bag and handed Mecke another $5. Mecke nodded. Problem solved.

We got back to the hotel and limped into our beds. Andy was the first to make it back on his feet and claim the shower. I crawled to the bar and ordered two double shots of Amarula, a Jack Daniels and coke, a Kilimanjaro beer, and some dried noodle twisty things. When we were both cleaned up, we ate, drank, and watched a whole lot of Freaks and Geeks on my laptop.

The next morning, Andy took off for Mombasa, then London, Paris, Romania, Los Angeles, and back home to Australia.

I am left here with three weeks before my flight out of Nairobi and no real plan. I’m feeling kind of lazy. I think I’ll stay in bed a while.