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Monday, January 20, 2014

Poison Oak, 50 Days of Hell

Today is the five-year anniversary of the Asian Reemergence (you'll understand after reading this)

This post is an excerpt from my blog about Korea in early 2009, I wasn't exactly Living the Dream.

I expanded on that blog when asked by some good friends (Eman & Jablow) about how bad it actually was. The below text was an email to them, but because of the interest and experience involved, I've decided to publish it as a stand-alone short story.. please enjoy, and don't despair, I'm OK now.

I don't think the pics tell the entire story, so here it is...

December 9, 2008: I went to a friends land in Mendocino County after I got laid off, when I got there my bro mentioned that I could assist in the clearing of an old logging road. With my recent life changes this seemed like the perfect outlet for any frustrations I might feel, so we busted out the Chainsaw, clippers, machetes, and cleared some 40 year old brush. We spent two days doing it and made a damn fine road if I do say so myself. Each Day I scrubbed like crazy after being in "it" for a few hours, but "it" ended up in patches all over my body & within two days my eyes looked like I had been sprayed with mace - puffy to the point where they were constantly watering, and bloodshot because I hadn't slept for almost 50 hours.

I know I get "it" bad, but I was oblivious the first few days & my normal medication (prednisone) was back in San Diego, while I was on a farm an hour from anywhere.

After day four my eyes got better but my arm got worse, like the individual tendrils of oak had been wrapped around it... I'm pretty sure they were. I had just gotten laid off was taking all of my frustrations out by just ripping at the various vegetation that had taken the road back, not really paying attention to exactly where these leafless vines came in contact with exposed skin.

December 17... POISON OAK IS EVIL! You see, I used to get poison ivy pretty bad as a kid, and had gotten some cases of poison oak since living in Cali, so I wasn't too worried. But it kept getting worse, on the 5th day I had to drive a friend to the San Francisco airport and my right forearm was oozing puss, yeah, I know, nasty. I was disgusted as was he, I could barely sleep since it actually hurt as well as itched. I'd never had it this bad, there were blisters on blisters the size of a quarter all over my arm, I had to keep it wrapped just to move in public but that just compounded the problem since the oak (or ivy) likes fresh air in order to dry, and heal. That night we met up with some friends in the city (DJ Mikey Lixxx & his girl) and I proceeded to drink as many Long Island Iced Teas as I could just so I could get a good nights sleep.

Woke up the next morning and it had gotten even worse, my entire arm was a blister, so I went to St Francis' Emergency Room in downtown San Fran, where they were even amazed/repulsed/confused - so I told them I needed a steroid shot, as well as pills, which is how we used to treat it when I was a kid. They obliged, thank god, and told me to see a skin graft specialist since my arm would probably never look the same again, I laughed and said that although this is bad, I have no doubts that it will dry up and heal with minimal scarring. (It has, by the way) I then hit up the pharmacy for some Valium, 600 mg Ibuprofen & Prednisone (that magical steroid that's really bad for us but seems to be the only thing that ever works) -- I was on my way to recovery, after a night in Mill Valley at another old friends house I picked up Dorothy at the airport and went back to NorCal for some R & R.

By the 22nd we were driving home & it was drying up, YIPPEE! I felt way better and other than the fact that I was shedding skin things seemed to be looking up.

Around Christmas I had run out of the pills they had given me, yet I still had a few patches on various parts of my body. Luckily years ago I had made a run to Mexico to pick those magic pills up for a situation just like this, so I took more. I knew I was coming to Korea and the last thing I wanted to do was deal with this there, so I made an appointment with my doctor for January 5th. I told him my story & he told me to put some aloe on it... I did, for 3 days and it was still sticking around. WTF, so I called him and he gave me yet another' script for prednisone. It's January 8th, I leave for Seoul on the 14th. I took it and honest to god it was gone. I had a few random dry patches on my arm but it was really gone, and I was happy since this was the last thing I wanted to deal with abroad.

So now it's January 17, I'm in Korea going to a Jimjilbang, which is a Korean bathhouse/sauna. This was killer, many different temperatures of hot pools, cold pools, western style (stand up) showers, eastern style (sitting) - a sweat lodge, different styles of Sauna, some just plain hot, some thick with Eucalyptus. The floors in Korea are heated so people would just lie wherever, I guess if your into it one can just pass out here for the night in a quiet corner. The actual Jimjilbang is co-ed and seems to be where families or couples go for a night to eat, and get massages or whatever. There's also a gym and all the spa amenities that any girl who reads this is used to, I wasn't so familiar. Now it gets strange again, Jono wanted to get a scrub: for like 8 bucks some dude in the bathhouse will scrub you with a rough loofah to strip your dead skin off, supposedly this is very healthy and effective. So we did it. It was like a massage, except rougher, faster, and a little painful. We were obviously smoother when it was all over, I think I lost a significant amount of lower leg hair, but in the end (we were there for like six hours) we were incredibly relaxed & rested.

Two days later (it's January 19) I'd traveled to southern Korea for a look at the more "rural" side of this Asian country, and I'm realizing the "scrub" had after-effects... It brought the poison oak back! Yeah, really, my right arm is blistered again and my lower legs are covered, I noticed it on Sunday and hoped it was just a fluke, hoped I had enough of that damn steroid in my system to clear it out. Nope, it's now right back where I was on day three or four (Dec 14th) - where the hell do I go in Korea to get this treated? How do I explain it? I called Dorothy to send me the remaining pills I have at home and it's Sunday there, Monday's MLK Day and there's no mail, so the soonest she can get them out is Tuesday which means I see them maybe Thursday?!?!? WTF, I need an ancient "Korean" secret or something. After some research we figured out the shipping would take even longer because prescriptions need to clear customs... fuck, I had no idea where I would be since by that point I was traveling to Hong Kong, Macau AND back to Kowloon.

To sum up, on January 21 I found a pill when I got back to Seoul that seemed to help, it stabilized it so it never made it back to that magnitude. Then I found a Pharmacy in Hong Kong on January 28, the pharmacists can prescribe medication, I got an even stronger steroid and watched it go away rapidly. It didn't fully clear up till Feb 5, I remember because I was looking for the "oak" as I was scratching mosquito bites when I was going back to Bangkok at the end of my time in Thailand.

I hope you enjoyed that, I didn't and now don't go anywhere without that powerful steroid, just in case.

Monday, January 28, 2013

An Extended Layover in Ethiopia

It wasn’t necessarily one of my life's goals to see Ethiopia... But the best fare to Kilimanjaro International was on Ethiopian Airlines, they had us laid-over in their capital city, Addis Ababa, so we extended it to four days thinking that another passport stamp from an African nation would make a nice addition to the adventure.
Traveling there spanned three calendar days, departing Lindbergh Field on a Saturday night red-eye to Dulles International. We had a six hour layover here where we enjoyed our last overpriced American airport food for three weeks, and a bloody mary. Eventually we checked-in, said one more goodbye to our loved ones and boarded the crowded plane to East Africa. That flight took off late morning Sunday, and after crossing the prime meridian landed about 8am on a rainy Monday.

Our entrance was smooth with one exception, my passport was pretty much full. I noticed this after checking in for the first flight and knew it might become a problem - in the past I’d spoken with other travelers who had dealt with this complication and now I was faced with the same dilemma...  I had to do some fast talkin’ convincing the customs officials to just take my $20 visa fee and figure out an open spot to stamp.

I GOT IN, but knew Tanzania would be another bridge I’d just cross when I got there. My passport still had extra pages, but not the official visa pages each countries state departments require. We collected the baggage and made our way through a few more checkpoints on the way outside.

A driver was waiting for us, a service that came with the Boutique style hotel we reserved. After 15 minutes we arrived at the “Lion’s Den,” checked in and unpacked... it had been 35 hours since we began, and I needed some fresh clothes before we set out to explore Addis.

We took off on foot a few hours later, it had been raining on and off so we took advantage of a break in the weather. Destination unclear, we walked away from the chaos we had driven through uphill towards where we hoped we'd find a public market. The streets were active with mid-day traffic and we were careful to stay clear of passing vehicles... the border between the roads and sidewalks was blurred, luckily we stuck out like sore thumbs being the only caucasians.

Or perhaps that made us a target... 15 minutes later Jablow had already made a friend, and this random “student” was inviting him to some sort of gathering. I quickly lied that we were in front of our destination, dodged into that random restaurant & we both decided to backtrack to a Radisson we'd passed for a beer. That “student” could have been attempting a scam we’d both read about in literature we’d received from our travel agency. The “gathering” may have been some festivities that, at the end of which, we would have been handed a bill for services rendered... Like I said, we’d JUST read about it in a doc titled “Practical Info for Visiting Ethiopia” so we weren’t taking any chances. Also, the language barrier was getting to be a bit much, verbally I had prepared for Swahili, not Amharic, so it was time for some western hospitality.

An hour later we felt replenished having each enjoyed a local brew, and were now utilizing the hotel concierge to secure a car to the Shiro Meda Market. We were looking for a few supplies, maybe some dry-food for the trek. Our driver zipped through Addis passing us a nickel tour along the way, and 20 minutes later we were driving through the market wondering if we had found what we were looking for. The driver dropped us at the far end and we proceeded on foot investigating the vendors and storefronts.

Produce, textiles, used electronics and clothing... no sun-hats, no sunglasses and no knives, we had been there less than 15 minutes and we were ready to take off. We found another cab and started back, stopping briefly a few minutes in to snag a pair of sunglasses from a street vendor I noticed as we were exiting.

We were leaving at 9am the next day for our “Safari.” Today was about people watching and our excursion had given us plenty including a view of the high security U.S. Embassy and the palace grounds.. another short ride and we were back at the Lion’s Den. We checked our email and sat down in the restaurant for a late lunch... I’d been looking forward to this local fare and it did not disappoint!

The bread (injera) and spiced meats (tibs) were perfect, we had ordered several dishes and our table was full. Some of it was spicy and some was crunchy, there’s no utensils and no napkins... the injera does it all. So much food we couldn’t finish, we took it to go, it was time to sleep now that we’d finally gotten some exploring out of our systems. Jet lag was setting in...

We woke up late, probably 9pm, and found a greek restaurant nearby. I knew I needed more sleep so we found a place with beer to wind back down for the evening. A little food and some shots to help us relax, we drank ouzo since that seemed to be a local fave. After an hour we were the last patrons in the lounge, and it was time to retire... tomorrow was going to be a huge day so we made our way back to the hotel where I spent time skyping with my wife and son before turning in. I was enjoying every minute near wireless internet, in the AM we would be leaving modern civilization for 48 hours, and then another day in Addis, and then who knows what in Tanzania... and then Kilimanjaro.

My sleep was good, or at least comfy - we both showered and packed before motivating down the stairs for breakfast. After an omelette with some fantastic coffee we “checked” our bags with the front desk and met Abay from Abeba Tours. This guy seemed cool and was in charge of our sweet Landcruiser, his shades reminiscent of Kanye ;) So far he seemed a little more urban than the bushmaster tour-guide we were expecting. Our backpacks were loaded and I jumped in the backseat ready for the several hour drive down to the plains of the Great Rift Valley.

When we planned this trip it seemed easy, book a driver to the nearest National Park - it was around 130 miles, so in California speak that’s under two hours - yeah, no. I was wrong, the roads here are horrible.

construction of an overpass

Mix that with obnoxious (but apparently normal) AM traffic and constant construction (in Ethiopias defense, evidence of their investment in infrastructure was everywhere), we now have the ingredients for a very slow departure.

We took the next few hours to people watch, Ethiopia was much more modern than I expected - everyone had smart phones and seemed in a hurry.

Apparently so in a hurry that rather than remove the bus it has become an add-on to this marketplace :) (Removing it looked like it would cause more harm than good)
We spoke a bit about the economic environment, Abay explained that although still in the developmental stages, Ethiopia’s independence has allowed them to outsource road construction to the Chinese - they’re scrambling to keep up with the rest of the world utilizing the aid money that has trickled in over the years. We continued down and out of Addis, as we did the structures became farther apart and the climate less damp - I was feeling the elevation change and starting to understand from the maps exactly how big Ethiopia is.. as we drove we learned from Abay about the various native Ethiopians and what parts of the country they called home. We were starting to see people garbed in traditional tribal attire and noticed the way they utilize modern construction with timeless mechanics.

Horse Drawn Truck Bed
From crowded city to hot plains we got a great feel for the geography of central Ethiopia.

Overturned Tanker Truck; Locals salvaging fuel before it's lost to the dry earth
As we drove through the farmland on the “Road to Djibouti” (this roads final destination, and Ethiopia’s primary port over ten hours away) we saw native herds of cows, camels & vultures.

Interesting Hyena | Unfortunately Roadkill
I’m gonna guess three hours since Addis, we were ready for a rest stop. Abay requested our dietary preferences, we let him know we were hoping he’d surprise us & he parked at an outdoor grill-style cafe in the village of Adama.

“Tibs & Injera” again, which was just fine. Beef & pork with fresh spices & bread as the utensil/napkin, we scarfed it down... this cuisine was still new, and the eating style neat - I was about to order a second helping but made the mistake of visiting the restroom:

Yeah, that’s a little piece of poo paper on the ground, what you can’t see is the abundance of flies buzzing my extremities. Pit style toilets are gross enough, this one smelled like it looked and I was happy I only had to pee.

That was our last stop in civilization, the road cleared up and the settlements mostly homesteads constructed of earth and straw... it was evident that these people lived off the land. The only interaction a majority had was selling charcoal in bags from the side of the road to the truckers driving by. The road took us on a detour, apparently the road was washed out every “winter” by the rising waters - of course the Landcruiser was fine off-pavement, and after several hours on public roads we appreciated that not every travel agency maintains such classy rides.

We arrived at the main gate, Abay paid the park fees and an armed guard/park ranger assumed the navigator role. Abay had been here before but this guy knew the Awash National Park - of course our first question was about the gun... initially I thought maybe it was for a lion? Nope, the natives are literally restless.?.! In desperation they may attack an unarmed vehicle for their water. Oh and we’re not allowed to take these nomads picture, at least not without permission and it didn’t seem like our guides were up for a conversation anytime soon.

The ranger started pointing out native life: dik-diks (A fat blue pheasant-like creature); warthogs;

several species of birds.. and then more people! These bush-nomads that were collecting wood but carrying rifles. We were no longer in Cali, lethal weapons were being carried freely for provisions, protection, and probably some more reasons as well.
We drove on, determined for the hot springs in the northern part of the park, the road itself was pretty beat-up and exactly the type of terrain we hoped to cross on our day-trip to the bush. The scenery was like out of a movie, every shade providing Acacia Tree protected various wildlife from the afternoon sun, and every water crossing was littered with tracks from that same wildlife making a pit-stop for water.

After an hour and a half on a road that had obviously not been upgraded by the Chinese, we drove through a family of warthogs and parked amongst some huts labeled as campsites on the park map. There were residents, our guides labeled them as students possibly with a science background - regardless they had settled in for the long-term and welcomed the loaves of bread and soda the ranger had loaded up back at the gate.

Abay and I
Next was a 600 meter walk through a field that the warthogs and cattle used for grazing. There were piles of poop everywhere; Poop, once warmed from the afternoon sun, was liquefying and mixing with the meadow-swamp tributaries. These “rivlets” of brown were flowing towards us from the hot springs. We hopped from rock to rock hoping each step was solid, I was dressed for a swim wearing the wrong footwear.

Poop Skipping

Eventually we entered a palm grove, the trail closed in to a path and the streams became larger (clearer) creeks - we were approaching the springs, good thing cause I had broken a sweat and was ready for a good soak.

It was HOT! At least 110 degrees (fahrenheit) - and it was deep... and I was realizing exactly how far we were from reality, AND I had no idea what creatures might live in or near this oasis. I wasn’t panicking but I was very aware that our trust in these two gentlemen, except for today’s conversations, was completely from an African website who’s been smart enough to maintain a positive online presence.

So here we are in the heart of Africa: two white guys stripped down to our boxers, skin bright pink from getting cooked in an Ethiopian spring, two hours from a paved road and who knows how far from a phone, hours from an embassy, hanging out with two locals- one carrying an AK-47 and the other looks like Kanye West. The ranger may have sensed my skepticism and jumped in after me.

And after maybe 30 minutes of taking a dip and drying off we laced up and started back, not as eager this time. We were enjoying the scenery and shade before we were once again in the truck for the ride back.

The 30 km back to the gate went fast, we saw more wildlife (including several turtles and a land tortoise!) and actually interacted with the aborigines by passing them our leftover water. They seemed polite and intrigued - as were we, the most notable thing was the way they dressed: I saw several women wearing “bebe” brand tops but then gowned with some sort of ceremonial wrap, barefoot and carrying bundles of wood on makeshift hats. It seems that Africa gets the worlds surplus of textiles, and puts them to good use... modern tailoring might have a few advantages.

We made it back to the park entrance as the sun was starting to set, and continued on toward the central part of the part. It was time for a “Game Drive” - right away it did not disappoint, the area we were in was known for the antelope and oryx.

They were comfortable around the vehicles, and politely posed while we focused our zoom lenses.

Awash National Park borders the Awash River, which is known for it’s tremendous waterfalls. On our way to the Awash Falls Lodge we stopped by an encampment on a precipice and took in the Awash Gorge - another lovely reminder of exactly how big Africa is, and how small we are in comparison.

Awash Gorge
About 20 minutes later we parked inside the entrance of the lodge, checked in, said our goodbyes (Abay would be back to pick us up in the AM) and freshened up before dinner. The room was fine, rustic but clean with an actual toilet.

It was getting dark so we donned our headlamps and made our way to dinner. Our path meandered along a cliff, the entire “resort” overlooked the falls, the noise and mist combined into a magical byproduct. We were careful, tomorrow we would have time to explore, it was time for refreshment.

Dinner was a group experience, every guest gathered on chairs and couches surrounding a central fire pit, we immediately ordered beers and the most basic entrees. (We’d had enough authentic cuisine for one day, chicken and pasta would be fine) After dinner we were offered coffee, which we found out later was served in a style reminiscent of a traditional Coffee Ceremony. Guessing it's performed nightly for the lodges guests.

She roasted the beans over charcoal, served these small espresso cups full of the rich dark liquid, and then used that same pan to pop some very unique tasting corn. It was a fun experience which we complemented with a lemon Ouzo nightcap. I made sure not to finish the wonderful coffee as I was hoping for sleep, and was looking forward to the sounds of water lulling me to dreamland.

I woke up to an empty cabin, apparently Jabs had motivated early. I lazed in bed still reading various literature I’d acquired in preparation of Kilimanjaro. Eventually I pulled my shoes on and began a search for my friend.

First Monkey Sighting

I snapped a bunch of pics of that guy, he was the 1st monkey I’d seen in Africa - we had been warned that several species abounded and we should make sure the doors are locked from these crafty animals.

I walked towards the falls and from an overlook I spotted my roommate, sitting on a rock near where the two falls landings joined together. I snapped a few pics and made my way down.

After appreciating the sheer immensity of those cascades for a few minutes we decided to embark on a small hike/adventure down a trail that followed the river from the falls. We had been warned about wildlife and being near a river, I was on the lookout for an alligator.

About 15 minutes in, after we’d seen so many varieties of birds and a family of monkeys jumping from rock to rock across the river, I saw something large from the corner of my eye jump into the river! I’ll never know if that was the wild alligator I had been hoping to see, and I think that’s close enough. We continued into the jungle, the trail was still clear and we were hoping to wrap around to the backside of the resort.

Eventually we came to a gentle slope up and noticed footprints in the soft scree, this was our path. After another 10 minutes we crested the ridge and followed an old road in the direction we guessed was the lodge. We saw something move in a clearing up ahead, and there was a fire with multiple children stumbling around in the vicinity? There was a man feeding the flames, our guess: the morning garbage burn, and the stumbling children? Baboons! So many I didn’t count, plenty, bare-assed long snouted baboons, and one was carrying a baby!

They got pretty close and obviously weren’t afraid of humans. Their whole draw was that garbage burn and whatever they could snag from it when that human wasn’t paying attention. After some time we continued on, as did the baboons, our next discovery was an ostrich enclosure - it was feeding time and the ranch-hand was busy chasing off the baboons from the trough he’d just filled.

This was the resort boundary, our last stop looked like a staging area for the revolution complete with a lookout tower - Africa was definitely a different world, SJ pointed out that a guard had perched over the front gate through the night with another AK, hmmm. I know what they’re defending, but I’m not sure what from. From this vantage our bearings were clear.

The resort and our room was nearby, amongst the bush overlooking several waterfalls.

We made our way to the restaurant and found the coolest covered alcove to enjoy breakfast in

it had spectacular views of the falls that took a backseat to the meal, I was famished and liked the crepesand coffee so much I ordered seconds!

We wrapped things up and made our way back to the room to clean up and get packed, it was approaching 10am, checkout time - our cue to jump back in the Landcruiser with Abay and make our way back. He verified that we were still OK with the pit-stop at the mineral springs that was mentioned in the original itinerary, which we were, so after a small delay when a herd of camels was blocking us from the main road - we were heading back towards Addis.

About two hours later we were driving through the Sodere Resort Hotel gate just outside of Adama, Ethiopia, once again chasing hot water - this time in the form of showers, and maybe a pool. The atmosphere was relaxed, although I did notice we were the only two caucasians once again, this spot was only known by locals.. we were getting turned on to some locals only shit, or so it seemed.

The moment we parked I had the camera ready, the monkey’s were obnoxious here!

Immediately taking up residence on our truck, we pulled on our trunks once again for another dip. What happened next was weird, I’m not gonna lie.

The men and women are separated, we were ushered towards the left, around a series of corners and down some stairs... This is what it was:

Six metal pipes protruding from the wall, the farthest being the hottest. Men would wander in with a bar of soap, their speedos and a towel, and bathe. Men and boys were sitting down in there, but there were no seats. We turned ourselves pink once again and made our way out, abstaining from the public pool - we were hungry and starting to get anxious over the next leg of our trip to Tanzania.

We stopped in Mojo for lunch, vegetarian today. Like everywhere, religion is a big part of Ethiopian culture. We had been speaking with Abay off an on about the subject, and knew he was Orthodox, which was the largest religion in the country. On Wednesdays they abstain from meat, and we were happy to oblige our host and enjoy Ethiopian vegetarian.

A few hours later we arrived in Addis, paid our tab with the tour company & wrapped up our road-trip with some souvenir shopping under dreary conditions. (it had been raining up here in the mountains) We made our way back to the Lions Den, unloaded the truck & said our goodbyes to Abay. 

We were beat, some food was in order before we verified our bags were packed for tomorrow morning's departure. I spent the last few hours that night speaking to my family, this was the longest I had been away from my son & wife and I wasn't sure what the online conditions would be in Arusha. I missed them both.

The next morning we woke up, showered, packed, scarfed down breakfast and caught one last Lion's Den shuttle to the airport... It was time to meet Jono and go to Tanzania! 

CLICK HERE if you haven’t already, and want to continue reading about our trip to Kilimanjaro's summit, and back.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Journey to Mount Kilimanjaro, Part 4

I didn’t start out thinking this would be a 4-part “series”, in fact I kept my journal with only one part in mind... what happens is I read, and re-read, and add pics, and read again, and eventually I decide that these divisions are necessary to keep the reader focused while giving us something to look forward to. Kilimanjaro was pretty freaking amazing, so I guess a 4-part blog is just my little tribute to the experience.
Additionally I’ve done my best to stay positive throughout this writing. I’ve been honest about my headaches and attempted to keep the whining to a minimum. This final chapter might feel different as I’m no longer holding back: We’re six days in, I’m sore, tired and a little fed up... although I understand the extra work necessary to assist us in achieving the summit goal, I don’t have to like it. I’ve never spent this long in a tent, and I’ve absolutely never allowed myself to be told what to do on so many levels... when & where to eat, sleep & walk... the entire experience was not conducive to my control freak nature. I was starting to get annoyed with our guides even though I knew they had nothing but our best interests in mind.

Day 6
Today was a short day so they allowed us to sleep in a little longer, “Bed Tea” was at 7:30am. The "Swahili Alarm Clock" went off on cue just before robbing me of my last few minutes of sleep - I would not miss that part, waking up to any other language but your own is never a pleasant experience.
Water had become scarce, the stream we crossed the day before was the last source so any water from here out would need to be carried up that hill and then on to the next camp... washy-washy was cancelled until Millenium, the evening of our summit attempt
hopefully 34 hours later.

This was of course fine by me, my cleansing was from the earth, the dust ever present as we worked our way east around the southern edge of the crater kept me pure and connected. Gone was the bothered feeling when noticing my filthy fingernails, and my sense of smell was tuned in to my surroundings. Our aroma was a group experience since we all had the same diet, and same cleansing opportunities. One rule of the mountain that was unspoken: Flatulence is good, it means the body is working as it should, and as disgusting as it might sound is an important part of high altitude living.

We worked our way east, the final push in that direction and it was a consistent uphill the entire way. Pole-pole was a beautiful thing, my headache had disappeared with last nights moon, and I was feeling surprisingly strong. I had brought too many snacks which was really working out since their same food had become more of an annoyance than a convenience.  We continued on, taking small breaks allowing the group to catch up and giving us an opportunity to snap some shots of the amazing, alien landscape we were walking through. It was a wasteland, absolutely no vegetation a true definition of the word barren.
We could see the next camp, our “base camp” the Barafu Hut (15,092 ft.) atop the cliffs ahead, meaning one more grueling uphill till we could sign-in at the ranger hut and drop our packs for the day. We could see the porters working their way onto the ridge and then disappear, our hope was that our tents weren't much further beyond that point... after working our way up the switchbacks for 45 minutes we were rewarded, with more uphill! Apparently the hut to sign-in was at the top of camp, even though we could see our tents setup well below. Onward and upward as others strolled past on the same trail having just descended from the summit... this gave us the last boost of energy we needed, after all of our walking we had finally crossed the summit path!

We signed the book and made our way to our area. The entire camp was at a significant angle so maneuvering from tent to tent was a challenge, once I found my home I relaxed until lunch and our most serious briefing yet.
All of the guides gathered in the mess tent, everyone turned towards center tent where Passian went over the five-step plan:
(1) Rest all afternoon
(2) Dinner at 5:30p
(3) More Rest
(4) Up at 10:30p for “Breakfast”
(5) Depart Promptly at 11:30pm up the summit trail to Stella Point (18,816 ft)

Sounded easy enough, I snapped a pic of our tents with Mawenzi (16,893 ft) in the background as I drifted into “sleep” mode mentally preparing for the next 24 hours.

DAY 7, 10:30pm
I had already put on half of my layers before the nap, waking up just meant finishing that job, verifying the tent was safe to be left behind & my pack was ready. Layers were easy, I’d put more than enough thought into it over the past few days and had just concluded my puffy jacket would be for the summit, the guides had warned me that the real cold wouldn’t happen till just before the sun came up.  Tent Safety? A sad but true fact, we were warned that looters were present. We packed our duffels and shoved them to one side so our porters could sleep in our tents while we were on the mountain. Finally, make sure my zippers are all zipped... and my water was full, laces tight, energy snacks easy to catch hold of, pockets easily accessed, headlamp on, CHECK.

Breakfast before Summit

I met everyone in the mess tent, porridge again, I attempted a bit while slamming hot water as fast as my throat could take it. Cocoa, too much sugar; coffee & tea, too much caffeine, hot water was my wake-up warm-up beverage of choice as we all prepped for a 4,249 foot ascent into the darkness.

We congregated outside testing our layers deciding what was too much or not enough for the next seven hours of walking, in the distance we could make out several other parties had begun their headlamps evidence that we weren’t the only group climbing Kili tonight. Our fearless leader was ready to go, he opted to go without a pack as did some of the other guides just in case they need to lend a hand to assist one of our party with their ascent.

That line up the mountain was fascinating, I wish I had attempted to take a pic, it stretched as far as we could see up into the darkness reminiscent of the night-lights on a ski slope.
I noticed the moon to the west, we began our ascent & shortly thereafter that moon disappeared behind the ridge we would be following all night... it was 11:30pm, the stars were providing enough light to follow the leader, I switched my headlamp to “red”, there was no need for more than that while my senses were so finely tuned to the atmosphere.

It felt like no time had passed, but it must have been at least 45 minutes, we were taking a break already. We kept going, up & up, another hour and we were in the Kosovo Campsite (15,955 ft), a higher base camp, an even more desolate place than Barafu. Most parties bypassed this camp because it was so far away from water. From here I knew we would be exposed, up until now is was just hiking on a fairly wide ridge. I suspect part of the reason we make this ascent at night is to avoid the amazing first hand views as we parallel the southern ice fields, our path was now onto a rocky ridge and would switchback the rest of our night.

We kept going, switch-backing back and forth higher on the mountain, each turn showing me some scary drops if my footing were to slip. If we could see there’d be a gentle but slippery scree-field on our right, and a drop to our left. I’d studied the book, and the map, the worst part was I was completely aware of exactly how far we had to go and we still had several hours before Stella Point.

Summiting at sunrise has many purposes, the main one I’m guessing is clarity. In the Winter the only time they can kinda guarantee visibility from the top is early morning, after studying the mountain for the past 6 days that was obvious... my question for Passian as we continued pole-pole up the trail was “What have you seen from the top?” His reply, “Nothing really. The tops of a few other mountains, Meru being the most common & once in a while, Mount Kenya. But never the ocean, or any cities, just the glaciers, clouds & sky.” I’m not sure what I was expecting the roof of Africa to look like but that sounded right, I’ve never been to the highest point on any continent and it dawned on me that
seeing, this time, will be outweighed by BEING.

We continued up, I was watching stars & constellations rise to our east... was that Jupiter? I attempted to ask but no words came out, just deep exhales. The return glance I received from Hashim was understanding, perhaps now was not the time to ponder the heavens. The line of headlamps above us kept disappearing giving the impression that we were reaching the summit, but a few hundred feet later we'd crest a small rise and the extraordinary line would reappear confirming what the time was constantly reminding us... we still had several hours to go. More time passed and it was starting to get colder, this was a sign of progress so as uncomfortable as it made me that didn't get me down... the time was approaching 5am. Was that a star or a headlamp? It moved, so it had to be a headlamp. The horizon above kept changing, I'd stare longingly at points of light wishing they'd stay still, and then they'd shift. The only difference between those headlamps & stars was the movement! I turned my glance further upward to regain perspective and as if on cue a shooting star blazed across the sky... now that's just some higher power fuckin' with me, I focused my concentration on the eastern sky, was it turning blue? I started to get excited, but physically there was no where for that energy to go... I was stuck in the middle of a very slow moving line and running past the leader was not an option. I began cursing; cursing my friend for dragging me up this godforsaken rock half way around the world; cursing our guide for not telling us exactly how much further every ten seconds when curiosity struck; cursing myself for getting into a situation where the circumstances felt so out of my control... I noticed a ridge to our right, there were tiny points of light moving on it, I'd been waiting for this, our trail merged with the Mawenzi Route near the crest and we were seeing those climbers! The sky was turning blue to the east, sunrise WAS getting close, as I looked above the lights on the horizon were no longer moving, there were only stars... this was it! My pace quickened and sure enough the wind picked up as we crested the crater rim, we had reached Stella Point (18,816 ft), the guides motioned us to some rocks where they served us tea and I was able to dig my puffy jacket from my bag.

"Stella-Tea", a little weird but welcome since my water tube had frozen... these peeps pass out tea for everything, a classy move if I was in the mood to appreciate it. I'd actually given up on eating, drinking & peeing several hours ago completely focused on the goal, and we were there. The sun started to rise, light bathed the crater and the guides got real close asking how we were feeling looking for signs of dizziness or nausea - it had been ten minutes since we'd stopped walking, I'd drank my tea and felt like a million bucks - it was time to press on, the colors were just starting to reflect off the glaciers and the summit was a mere 45 minute walk away! My camera would not power on, it was frozen, so my challenge was juggling the trekking poles, backpack, gloves, camera and batteries - the walking was easy, I just kept telling myself "Don't fall off the mountain as you gape at the surroundings." I swapped batteries with the one that had been living in my glove... success!

The sunrise was spectacular, and the reflection off the glacier to our south was unreal. We passed climbers coming from the summit some happy and some obviously wiped out, I congratulated everyone and high-fived whoever made eye contact in time to receive. It didn't matter what language they spoke, all I knew was on my return from the top a random high-five would be welcomed after an accomplishment so many days in the making.
The ultimate picture was in front of me: Mount Kilimanjaro's shadow on top of the western clouds, with Mount Meru poking through at the tip. We had arrived, I dropped my gear and fell to my knees taking in the full 360 degree view from Uhuru Peak at 19,341 feet - and it was awesome. Our guides pressed us to get pictures with the sign, apparently this area becomes jammed with climbers and we'd arrived during a rare open window of opportunity... Passian had waited 45 minutes for his last summit group pic with the sign, we obliged and started the procession of posing.
This Phish sticker was already here :)
The individual groups were first, and then our entire group, the Shira 8-Day Dream Team took their places while the guides sorted out 10 cameras and tried to keep everyone's focus in this thin air. We had made it, and after maybe 15 minutes the guides herded us back down the trail.

WTF, I had just spent days working towards this goal and now they had the nerve to usher me off like some commoner who had just toured the Louvre? I was not happy, I feigned blistered feet and took my merry old time strolling down the trail. I'm sure they have their reasons; like altitude sickness, descent time/trouble, possibly excessive UV exposure or sunstroke... I'm guessing the average climber is so elated once they reach the top they don't notice the onset of anything. This could make for even more difficult descent and the guides have been trained to "encourage" us in that direction since there was still a good ten hours left in our day. But I was different damnit, a quick check of my co-climbers and I realized I was the only one disappointed. "Just go with it" was the response I read, I still found reasons to dawdle milking every second of my first time above 19 thousand feet.

The trail down from Stella was a crazy scree field, I had experience with this but wondered who else had because it was exhausting. We'd just climbed a lot of vertical and were now working through foot deep gravel... I could feel the Oxygen returning to my lungs and my desire to be through this challenge outweighed the pain in my toes, this descent was steep! It was a different way than we'd taken up, so many people climb this trail that it's one way and this scree field, although slippery, has proven to be the fastest route back. I guess it's easier to slide people down a wide rock-slide than ask them to maneuver a narrow exposed trail. I'll bet the time factor outweighs the benefits of solid ground. It took about an hour for our 1st goal of the descent to finally come into view. (our sleeping pads in our tents back at Barafu) There was still quite a ways to go down the scree field and our group was spread out over several miles, everyone with one of our guides making sure we were OK.

Finally we were on solid ground, it was so welcomed I felt like running to celebrate. The downhill momentum was pushing me, I'd walked so far in the last ten hours I could barely feel my feet. Finally I was within our camp boundaries, and then I saw my tent, Jabs had already returned. I threw down my gear and stripped, so many layers still I needed to feel air on my skin. Moments later I crawled under my bag, horizontal at last, it was time for a cat nap before lunch.
We woke up an hour or two later, had a light lunch, and were ordered back to pack our gear, we still had a few hours of downhill to the Millennium Campground. (12,467 ft) 

We hiked into the clouds down a rock strewn saddle ridge, our pace quick behind Suleman. We took breaks, but none very long, the fog added a chill and we were eager to be done with this day. About three hours since Barafu we spotted the "hut's" roof in the distance, and a few minutes later we strolled past a helicopter pad to the ranger hut and signed in, for the last time. This evening was a blur, we spent some time after an informal evening briefing hanging out with some guides and exploring the tall brush forest, I found out that the porters were once again walking with our water up another large hill, the poor bastards. We also sorted out our tipping money, as the group organizer had tasked us during the first meeting, our accountant Olivia made sure everyone was rewarded for such tremendous efforts and I was happy to give my part. (I'd been carrying $200 everywhere for the past eight nights and I was glad to be relieved of most of it) The next morning we'd be meeting with our entire team for the "Tipping Ceremony" where we rewarded the various teams for their hard work over the past week and a half. Eventually we had dinner and passed out hard drunk on the oxygen rich air we'd be breathing deep all night.
This video is a little long, but very good. The next morning (Day 8) I was awoken one last time by the Swahili alarm clock, being the last time made it that much easier to take. We had an easy breakfast and congregated in the center of camp. We thanked the various divisions of our porters, our cook Milton, the assistant guides and of course Mr. Passian. They, in return, put on the show you just watched, eventually involving each one of the 15 of us... I was pretty moved and actually teared up, it was amazing to watch these silent & efficient workers so enthusiastic about thanking us for a successful expedition.
Shortly after we were back on the trail working our way down, Sarah, Jabs, Christine & myself behind Christopher in the lead... we were eager to get to a different climate and off this rock, I'd had enough, it was time for a shower. Of course the next stop was the rain-forest, which started out beautiful and turned into the most slippery mud track I've ever been forced to negotiate. 

My new-ish boots tested just fine and after several hours the trail turned into a road which terminated at the Mweaka Gate - the last place to sign proving to the Tanzanian Government that were were leaving Kilimanjaro National Park. There were a lot of people here, and plenty of touts. Jabs tossed me two bucks to have the mud cleaned from my boots and someone sold me a beer, everything seemed incredibly appropriate. Maybe 30 minutes later were were walking down a road into Mweaka Village, we found the AWC's meeting spot and promptly had more beers... for some reason I was incredibly thirsty :) We spent about an hour having lunch, saying goodbyes and snatching up souvenirs from the overly eager sales force.. this was another part of Africa I would not miss, it was apparent that these people had been rewarded highly in the past for their obnoxious efforts. I was not amused and ended up swearing a guy off that was getting a little too close for comfort. We eventually boarded a bus where Jono & I rocked tunes while most of our party napped during the two hour drive back to the Ilboru Safari Lodge.

Notable moments, as I wrap this up: Checking back in was easy, as was retrieving our bag... but the hot water handle on my shower shot off seconds after I turned it on and I had to call engineering to repair before I could bathe for the first time in nine days.
Shower Engineers

I eventually got clean, did some packing and then joined our group in the restaurant for our final meal together. I ordered a bottle of wine and, once Sasha had them all filled out, made sure everyone received their "certificate", a park provided document proving we had reached Uhuru Peak. (It was official!) Passian had passed this responsibility to me before our bus trip back, he was not feeling well and made me promise to stay reasonably sober until they were dispersed through out the group ;) That night ended with whiskey shots and I passed out hard, tomorrow was an easy day where I just needed to pick a little stone up for my wifey and make it to the airport by 4pm.

I woke up after eight solid hours, took care of some last minute souvenir shopping and after packing everything into my duffel checked out. I was ready to depart the Ilboru and Africa, it was time to begin the 38 hour journey back to San Diego. After an uneventful airport ride, and checking our bags through to the U.S.A, as an encore I was graced with a clear view of the mountain from my window seat.

Goodbye Africa, it's been nice, I'll see you again someday.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
Take my hand and join us
And the world will live, will live as one