You never feel as far from home as you do standing above the clouds. One morning, in late June 2016, I crawled out of my tent in Shira II camp, 13,000 feet up on the western slope of Mount Kilimanjaro, looked down at the clouds below, and reveled in my remove. Looking up, I could see Kilimanjaro’s peak which, at 19,341feet, is the highest point on the continent of Africa, and the ninth highest in the world. It is a wild place that is home to no one and to nothing.
With my camera in hand, I panned the scene hoping to capture the morning light in a way that would impress my Facebook friends. Instead, I spotted a young porter - one of thirty Tanzanians assigned to haul our food, shelter, emergency equipment, toilet, and other necessities up and down the mountain - who had climbed onto a large boulder and lifted his arm. In prayer? To Allah maybe?
“There’s your picture,” said one of our guides who had come bearing tea. He gestured to the porter who was slowly pivoting, his eyes trained on his extended right hand.
“Oh no,” I whispered. “I wouldn’t want to disturb him.”
“Then let me take it,” the guide said trading me the tea for my camera. “Silly kid. I don’t think he’s going to find anything.”
“He’s praying!” I hissed. “Don’t take his picture.”
The guide laughed as he snapped the photo. “He’s not praying. He’s looking for a cell signal. That’s a phone in his hand. After today there’s no chance of calling home.”
I took a closer look and, sure enough, the porter was holding a cell phone heavenward. He wasn’t thinking of Allah any more than I was. Instead, he was beseeching Vodacom or Airtel to allow him a short call home to say hi to his family or check in on the soccer scores. It occurred to me that if my own fifteen year old son had toted his phone along, he’d be up there on that rock engaged in the same high tech supplication.
The food we eat, the way we dress, the languages we speak, and our cellular service carriers differ, but people are pretty much the same wherever you go. Once you notice that, you can’t stop noticing that.
A few days later, on our hike to the summit of Kibo, Kilimanjaro’s highest peak, the thinning air slowed me to a snail’s pace. I was constantly moving but my progress was imperceptible. Two of our guides stayed with me and filled over 1,000 vertical feet with tales of their children.
I heard about their kids’ school friends and asthma issues and soccer games. We agreed that there is nothing so initially cute and then interminably boring as five-year-olds playing soccer. They told me about their babies who would not sleep through the night. They shared worried anticipation that their wives would want to unload those kids as soon as the hike was over. I offered a little advice on the “crying it out” method of sleep training. We recited our favorite lines from The Hangover movies and shared our career plans. They were surprised to learn that I love beer. I was surprised to learn that they do not.
At the summit, while standing inside a cloud and right before I started hallucinating fields of purple flowers, I made a post-hike shopping plan with our guide who knew of a place that sold soccer jerseys like the one he wore almost every day. I knew my soccer-loving, seventeen-year- old, all-American nephew would love one just like it.
A couple of nights later, at our last camp of the trip, I brushed my teeth outside the porters’ tent and listened to a boisterous trio, or maybe a quartet, belt out Beyonce’s Single Ladies. I joined in on the “All the single ladies, all the single ladies, whoa, whoa, whoa” part, having learned at least that much from my own kid’s playlist. The tent went silent when the singers realized they had an audience and then we all cracked-up together. They laughed because they were busted. I laughed because “Queen B” had infiltrated both my home and the Kilimanjaro rainforest. But what did I expect those internet-connected, young porters to sing in their tent? Some ancient tribal chant that celebrates getting another tourist group up and down the mountain? If those Tanzanians came to Vermont and hiked with my kids, would they expect to hear Hava Nagila sung around the campfire?
Climbing Kilimanjaro was, hands down, the most adventurous thing I’ve ever done and yet, it made the world seem so much smaller and easier to navigate. Maybe the internet’s ubiquity is homogenizing cultures. Maybe it’s got something to do with the increasingly global marketplace. It might be my own middle age.
During a college semester in Kenya, I drank blood that was pulsing out of a goat’s jugular vein while a Samburu warrior held skin and other tissue out of the way. (O.k. Climbing Kilimanjaro might be the second most adventurous thing I’ve ever done.) At the time, the grossness of the blood was overshadowed by the exotic magnificence of that warrior with his ochered hair, vibrant beads, and considerable muscles.
That was thirty years ago. Now, when I look at those photos, I see the warrior for what else he was, an eighteen-year-old kid who was kind of full of himself. Chances are, he has kids of his own now. They’re probably wearing soccer jerseys, singing Beyonce lyrics, and searching for decent connectivity.
Title Photo: Morning dawns on Barafu Camp, 15,331'. (photo: David Kotz)
Karen Kaliski is a freelance writer and marketing consultant. She lives in Vermont with her family who travel together whenever possible, most often to nearby waterways, mountains, and ice cream establishments.