"Pole pole": the Tao of Mount Kilimanjaro

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At_Uhuru.jpgThe first five days of March found me on the slopes, and at the summit and peak, of Mount Kilimanjaro.  (In the picture at left, taken at Uhuru Peak, I am the person sitting center, wearing the white hat and green balaclava.) 

I climbed the mountain because the grand finale of the novel that I'm currently writing, The Celebration Husband, takes place at a WWI German military camp at the base of the mountain.  Technically, the research didn't require me to go all the way up the mountain.  But I figured, while I was there . . . .

Kibo_above_Horrombo.jpgAs it turned out, however, Kilimanjaro was an incredibly useful addition to my writing process.  In order to ascend the mountain, a climber must acclimate to the altitude.  Every step up decreases the amount of available oxygen, until by the end, the climber has to make do with something like 50% of the oxygen found at sea level.  To the unacclimated, this state of oxygen deprivation can result in sleepiness, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and - in extreme cases - cerebral or pulmonary edema.

Mawenzi.jpgTherefore, in order to acclimate, a climber must go slowly.  "Pole pole" is Swahili for "slowly slowly," and it's the unofficial slogan of the mountain.  Any competition in terms of a climber's pace up the mountain can only entail being the very last to arrive at each day's camp.  Climbing Kili demands creeping one's way to success, an approach antithetical to the vroom-to-the-top methodology admired elsewhere in the world.

By temperament and aptitude, I'm a vroom-er.  Left to my own devices, I zip around at a pace that, I gather, most people find to be out of step with their own.  The speed characterizes my writing, as much as my thinking, temper and rate at which I change jobs, abodes and continents.  (The fast pace, by the way, is innate, not induced; though I've never tried cocaine, I've had enough exposure to people who have used it to conclude that it would only slow me down.)

But as my life progresses, I'm finding that I'm a born sprinter being made to run an endurance race.  The life trajectory that I'd mapped out for myself at a more youthful age didn't involve years of struggle to get published.

View_from_Horrombo.jpgAnd, although I recognize that my expectations of fast work leading to fast reward have never once been met, I still default to them.  The Celebration Husband was going to be a sprint for me.  I was going to finish the book in four months; the book would be shopped to publishers by the second half of 2010. 

Now I know that those expectations are unlikely to be fulfilled.  The reasons are best explained by saying that, while some Christians have had their lives custom crafted by an intelligent designer, my life seems to have been hewn by a notably thoughtless sculptor with a sense of humor that I've yet to appreciate. 

Nonetheless, even such maladapted creatures as sprinters in marathons can learn to endure and even thrive, and climbing Mount Kilmanjaro provided this maladapted creature with valuable lessons in success through submission to a hostile (if gorgeous) environment.  No one can fight oxygen deprivation; a climber who hopes to avoid being crushed by altitude sickness can only accept the thin air and acclimate.

Mzee_Emanueli.jpgFor those who surrender to the mountain and acclimate to its demands, the returns are immeasurable.  Of our fifteen guides, four were brothers.  Their father was also our guide.  His name was Mzee Emmanueli (pictured left), and he has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro more than 3,500 times.  He is 80.  

After descending the mountain, I read this excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson's journal in an article in The New York Review of Books:

Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have seen mountains, if they speak of them.  The young writers seem to have seen pictures of mountains.
(John Banville, "Emerson: 'A Few Inches from Calamity'," The New York Review of Books 35 n.4 (Dec. 3-16, 2009).)

I am unlikely ever to be known as a young writer.  But I have seen mountains.

(The second picture was taken just outside Horombo, a camp at 12,000 feet.  Kibo, the crater peak of Mount Kilimanjaro, rises in the distance.  The third picture is of Mawenzi, a second peak on Mount Kilimanjaro.  The fourth picture is of a subsidiary crater below Horombo.)

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This page contains a single entry by Maya published on March 14, 2010 2:55 AM.

Resiliency, not rights was the previous entry in this blog.

Storytelling across divides: perils and necessity is the next entry in this blog.

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