Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Maybe the stupidest thing I have ever done

DAY THREE: April 6, 2014


Holy moly...quite the day. Ups and downs, peaks and valleys, and things I never expected to feel or hear so soon, much less on the first full day here.


I woke up multiple times and rolled over noticing the light still on from when I zonked out the night prior. Finally getting up to turn it off, I noticed it was 5:38 AM.climbed back in bed. Ten minutes later, I was up and dressing for 6:45 Mass...if I was up, I might as well try to make it back for the crater trip. After dressing, I walked to the door to try to leave, but realized I didn't have my own key. After finding one, borrowing it, and leaving a note saying I had, I was about to make my way or when Amelia walked down the hall and let me out sleepily...And it was a good thing as there were three locks, a locked gate, and several keys I actually would have needed to escape.


I walked quickly to the Cathedral and made it in plenty of time, amazingly, praying the Rosary along the way. I arrived and found a seat in the relatively empty church. It would be about twenty minutes until the crowds of Tanzanians arrived...and Mass actually started at about 7. No worries, I thought, surely I would still make it back by 8:30 to the house.


To try to sum up the experience at Mass briefly is mind traveled everywhere, from doubt yo guilt to joy to fear to peace and back again, in and out almost seamlessly. I was amazed by the beautiful voices and harmonies of the choir, whilst clueless as to the content of the songs. I knew the content, I heard the joy and faith, but the message was a blur. At the very least, I was blessed to be in the Catholic Church and so had some guidance as to prayers abd structure. The reverence of the congregation and pastors was certainly beyond most American churches, and I ate that up.However I still found myself frustrated not knowing the readings, the sermon, the little added nuances, and the hymns, which certainly demonstrated the importance of music to the culture. This was a SIX FORTYFIVE AM MASS...and it had more music than any in the U.S..


As Mass went on, I just lost myself thinking of how much I didnt understand, how long Mass was taking, whether I would be able to get into the house without a key if they had already left. I was already planning out how terribly the test of the day was going to be. I would be locked out in my church clothes in Tanzania during rainy season with no cash and no way to get any money or a key. Then after the homily the crowds lined up to the front of the church as if for Communion...but it was the collection. And EVERYONE was going up...and I had ZERO MONEY...the lone white guy in the whole building who everyone probably thought had more money than I could possibly need walked up to the front of the Church with NOTHING, bowed toward the altar, and walked away...I was PETRIFIED and embarrassed... what was I doing here, why did I come across the world to be totally proven incapable of doing anything right. Sure, I knew it was ridiculous to think, but still I thought it.


Finally, the Eucharistic prayer started, and I was home...the language didn't matter, my empty wallet didn't matter, my frustration was gone. I knew this, and Christ was He had been the whole time, but visible at the altar and tangible, bringing what unites us all despite culture, language, socio-economic status...that is, Himself. He brought peace, and though the problems of the day hadn't gone completely, my mind stopped racing and it was okay. What a loving God is ours to come tangibly each day in the Mass to be present tangibly for us weak humans sometimes unable to sense His presence unless truly visible and tangible...and to physically unite himself to us!!


After receiving our Lord in the Eucharist, I felt much better...peaceful, calm, and ready for the rest of the day.  Unfortunately, one thing stood in my way...ANNOUNCEMENTS.  Seriously, I have no idea what the woman that went up to the ambo just before the final blessing was saying, but she had a stack of papers that she kept going through, announcing or stating something in very LOUD, emphatic Swahili.  Each time I thought she was finished, she just flipped through the papers and found another announcements.  Finally after about 5 minutes of this, I decided to stem my frustration by reading my Office that I had brought with me.  After going through the readings for the day, I thought she would be finished...WRONG.  It must have been at least ten minutes worth of talking by this woman.  I was wearing out, and I actually appreciated the brevity of American Mass announcements and that they usually only hold you hostage for about 2-3 minutes in the usual non-liturgical fashion.


In any case, finally Mass ended with one last song, and as I filed out I looked down at my watch to see that is was 8:45 AM!  Two hours after the original start time, 15 minutes after the scheduled next Mass time (which explained the large crowd waiting just outside the Church when I left), and seemingly an eternity from when I had been walking in the dim light of dawn towards the Cathedral.  I quickly navigated through the crowds and made my way back to the house.  


I was thrilled to hear the voices of the other housemates as I walked up through the gate and into the house.  Certainly, I felt bad that they had waited for me (orginally planning to leave at 8), but was glad to have a chance to do something for the day (and also glad to not be locked out of the house as I had worried before.  I was welcomed with friendly hello's and quickly changed.  One of the housemates told me not to worry about cash for the day as she'd cover it and I could pay her back, and the tension of the previous days just continued to fade.  We packed up the 4X4, dinged up, faded yellow truck and headed out.


Now, I will say it's not the safest mode of transport in the world, but the view from the back of a truck is the best way to see the sights around Mbeya and the surrounding region.  (However, John-Paul, Jude and Mary-Teresa, as far as you are concerned, Daddy rode in the cabin of the truck with his seatbelt on THE ENTIRE TRIP).  We navigated thru the area of town quickly and soon were in an area that I couldn't recognize and likely will never be able to pick out or get to on my own. Turning down this road and that, we were in the middle of "the market" which to me resembled just an assembly of open, worn down buildings that looked in many ways like everything else with the exception of people bustling about and offering their foods, fruits, and fabrics, among other very random things.  It was amazing though, to look around and see the poor conditions of the buildings in one glance, and look up at the green mountainside, as beautiful as could be, in another. It was hard to make sense of it all.


At the market, we stopped only for a short while to buy a bit of breakfast.  In a building with no front wall and cement walls (much like every other "stall" you might call them) sat a woman cooking flatbread and fried whole potatoes (fritters).  This was our breakfast.  A flatbread for 100TZS, a fritter for 300TZS, and a little spice on top.  Hungry as always, it looked amazing...and for 400TZS total, it was hard to fathom that my breakfast cost the equivalent of a quarter...and it felt almost wrong to pay so little.  Even so, I was being paid for by another's dime, so I didn't feel the ability to pay more than requested.  We hopped back in our truck with our amazingly cheap breakfast, and I scarfed it down with my half liter of water that I brought from home.  


After picking up another two friends coming along to the crater, we headed down towards what I considered to be the more developed area of town, meaning it had a couple of gas stations and a few "grocery stores" which appeared to be what you and I would just call a convenience store mixed in with other larger, true buildings in which this business and that held their office space.  We fueled up the truck and headed out of town, the buildings becoming more sparse and scattered neighborhoods of shops and homes taking their place along the main road.  Sitting out along the ground on the road were clothes, shoes, fruit, furniture all for sale, and countless people milling through shopping or just sitting waiting for business.  Even more chaotic were the "dalla dalla"s (known as *** combi's in Gabs) sprawled in every which place on the side of the road and randomly stopping and going, picking up any passenger willing to pay a coin or two.


We passed through a small town called Uloye along the way, and then even the Coca-Cola and Pepsi covered make-shift shops started to disappear.  Suddenly we could see in full view the amazingly beautful countryside which we could only partially capture before.  Around us stood mountains covered in green vegetation, farmland covered with cabbage, sunflower seeds, wheat, maize.  It was incredibly to take in, especially considering the contrasting images from the city moments before.  We made our way closer and into the mountains.  In every direction we took in the countryside: green covered-hills upon which patches upon which the most fertile, dark soil I've seen interspersed with patches of cabbage, corn, carrots, and who knows what else; clouds of every shape and size above us dolloped into the blue sky above; children and people along the road, waving and yelling happily or turning and staring at the uzungu (foreigners) in the back of the truck, respectively; cows grazing in fields, on hills, or just right next to the road; women carrying buckets, baskets, and the like on their heads as they walked the road to the next town; locals washing HUGE bags of carrots in a stream down below over which the road ran) then another small village would pop up with concrete slab buildings topped with either shiny, new tin roofs (or for the less fortunate, rusted, beat up, holey, or even nonexistent roofs) and another crop of people staring and waving, plus or minus another small market.  The scenes repeated more times than I could count, but as we wound up and down hillsides and valleys, they never became even the slightest bit repetitive.  Each scene, though similar or nearly identical to the one before, was ever novel and breathtaking, fascinating, or a combination of the two.  


After what seemed like an hour that slipped by like nothing, we arrived at the entrance to the park, a tall, green mountain/hill to our left as we entered.  A tiny booth/entrance area "guarded" the entrance, and as the locals yelled out something I couldn't understand, we came to a stop and Amelia jumped out to sign us into the park and pay our entrance fees.  This was no small matter, it seemed, as for five or ten minutes she sat in their, reportedly going back and forth on what was a reasonable price to pay.  Apparently the locals wanted an entrance fee that surpassed that of what was typically paid for Mount Kilimanjaro.  No matter, as Amelia knew better and talked them down a bit.  As that process took place, the rest of us waved and exchanged greetings with four small children on the other side of the entrance road who thought we were the most interesting thing they'd seen in some time.  They waved and said hello, walked away for a minute, then came back again as if the game were brand new.  


As Amelia returned, we waved goodbye and entered the park area.  The road was less well defined, but thanks to the driving skills of Josh, Amelia's brother, the drive was an afterthought to us passengers.  The markets and buildings from before on the main road were replaced quickly by larger, more open hills of farmland. The homes were more likely to be made of wood than concrete, the people were farther between, and the vegetation now included beautiful flowers, shrubs, grass covered embankments on either side at times, and banana trees taller than me (by far...reaching 15-20 feet by my estimate at times).  We drove along on roads that spanned from well made to covered with potholes an foot deep cracks.  Conveniently enough, some of these came along one side of the road whereas the other side of the road was feet from steep drop to a valley about 100 feet below....thank God that Josh knew how to drive...I was rather nervous as we went through those brief spots...if only I knew it was only foreshadowing.


After what we all remarked was something along the lines of driving through "Jurassic Park", we asked around and were given directions to the area from which one could hike up to the crater.  As we entered, the road became just a path created by previous cars, and the vegetation became more dense around and overhead.  With tall trees overhaning, flies zooming across the open truck bed, birds cawing, and huge bushes and banana trees, we entered what more truly resembled a jungle.  We descended even further into the area, down a path covered in dirt and stones down which we slipped and slid as much as drove.  Given it hadn't rained yet that day, we were justifiably concerned about whether or not we would make it out and up that road should rains come.  Eventually the road leveled out, but a recently felled tree blocked our path just a few hundred meters from where the hiking path began. We reversed (after having to use a few branches under a back tire to get better traction as the back wheels got stuck in mud) and parked, making the rest of the trip on the road on foot.  


Finally we reached a clearing in the jungle where the sky was visible above.  After looking around a few moments, we started up the path towards the crater, which began as a densely covered route which made me glad I'd worn jeans and not shorts).


Now when I say hiking path, I don't mean to convey a clearly marked, smoothed out, easy walking path.  Nor was this just a steep hill.  This was the most intense hiking I've done (now granted, know that this means nothing, and many people might not blink an eye at it...but for me, it was the worst).  The path quickly began to climb.  First, it was just walking carefully, using roots for footholds and choosing your steps with care.  Vegetation intermittenly impeded your view, and ducking below branches became the norm pretty quickly.  However, the hike continued, with obvious and hidden tree stumps, moist stones, less steady footing, using tree roots as footholds as well as handholds, and narrowing pathways...up and over trees, through short tunnels of tree branches and stumps in which the only light entering was from the openings on the sides.  Honestly, had I not had people in front guiding, I never would have chosen this as a "hiking path".  Navigating was difficult, and the hiking even harder.  I was becoming progressively more tired, short of breath, and beginning to feel a bit light-headed.  Now, keep in mind that I was climbing up on little food, minimal breakfast, 500 mL of water for the day, taking malarone (which the bottle nicely warns "May cause dizziness, take with food"), in elevation of probably well over a mile (as Mbeya is 5000 ft and we drove UP to the park, and within 48 hours of arriving in a time zone 8 hours ahead of my home...with rain threatening...I'd call that suboptimal conditions.  It seemed like every time I thought maybe we'd be getting close to the top, we kept going and the path kept getting harder. I was more tired, my legs less steady, and my mind racing with thoughts of how dumb I was being.  Finally, the final gauntlet.  We CLIMBED up a steep area, using roots as steps and trying not to slip; then once on top, another few hundred meters of walking along less steep but NARROW path.  Literally, at times I looked down to realize my path was 2-3 feet across with either steep slopes down (ie sliding or falling to certain injury or worse) on both sides or one slope down and an up slope on the other that narrowed the path even further.  It was PETRIFYING.  I had no choice but continue on though, and as the rain above started to fall we arrived at the lookout point at the crater.  


Indeed, the foggy haze-covered view of the lake-filled crater below was retrospect I wish I had appreciated it more at the time.  I snapped a few pictures but couldn't think of much else but "HOW IN THE WORLD ARE WE GETTING DOWN NOW THAT IT'S RAINING!?!?!" I had one more picture taken of me by Carmel on her camera (in case I slipped and died and was never found), and said half-jokingly "Let's be sure that's not the last picture of me ever taken." Then it was time to head back down the mountain...hopefully at a safe pace and on the path we had come up rather than one of the many alternatives that terrified me on the way up.  


The climb down was less trying physically, but with the rain falling harder and harder, and my fatigue setting in, I was truly hoping I wouldn't end up sliding or falling down the side of the path at some point.  At some point in time I became the last person in the group, and everyone just kept going faster than I was comfortable with.  At times I saw no one ahead of me, and even for just the few seconds that lasted it was terrifying.  What if slipped and fell, what if they didn't notice for a few minutes and had trouble finding me in the rain, or couldn't?  It was painful.  I alternated between trying to slowly navigate the most dangerous pathways and speed up to a few steps of jogging/running on the ever - wetter ground below me where I was fairly certain I wouldn't fall (to my death at least).  It was almost like running provided surer footing at times, but then a dip in the path or stones seen ahead made us slow down.  Finally having made it past the most treacherous points, I eased up a little.  Sure, I still thought I might fall, but it'd be minor.  As we continued down, I hesitated on a step, providing just enough lack of friction to allow me to slip to my butt, covering it in mud.  I laughed and got back up.  We continued down, grabbing roots and stones to provide support on the steeper slopes, and grasping branches on the sides on the less steep areas.  Though the stems and branches were rather weak, grabbing a few of them provided just enough hold for a brief moment before they broke to allow you to readjust your foot or regain your balance. I was grabbing hold of things and leaning my hand on areas without even was all about making it down...I would put my hand into something wet or gooey and just reflexively grab some branches or leaves to wipe it off.  With about 1/3 of the path still ahead of us, I took another hesitant step without branches in my hands and paid the price, slipping and landing on my back with a THUD.  That one hurt for a moment, but I was fine and just happy to be close to the bottom.  As we made our way through the level, vegetation-covered path at the bottom near the clearing, I was thrilled to be done with, in my opinion, was the DUMBEST thing I've done...but it was fun once I knew I had made it down.


Back at the truck, we found the bed covered in rainwater and stuck in a bit of mud.  All of us but Josh stood (yes stood) gripping a handrail in the bed as we started driving back up the hill of the forest path.  My feet, wet before, were soaked by the sloshing water that gradually made it's way out of the back of the truck with the tailgate down.  We came upon the path which we "slid" down in the car earlier.  As Josh navigated back and forth along the path, we became more confident that the rain hadn't made things too terrible on the path, and only came upon one spot where the truck lost traction.  Three or four attempts later, though, Josh overcame the best that slippery gravel trail had to offer, and the rest of the drive out was glorious.  We stood in the truck, deathgrip on the handrail, dodging tree branches by bobbing our heads as we trekked along at probably 15 mph.  Once back on the park road, we picked up speed and let the air dry our soaked clothes as well as the bed of the truck.  We marveled yet again at the surrounding vegetation, laughed at two cows that ran across the road, and finally stopped at the now deserted entrance booth off the main highway.  Dry enough, we took the mattresses that had been in the cabin for protection from the rain and sat down again, exhausted but happy.


At this point, we decided to make our way to a waterfall about 15 miles down the highway further from Mbeya. We sat and enjoyed the view, but noticed that rain clouds that seemed off the the west of our destination were moving closer and closer.  We stopped at a market to buy some avocados (which the woman selling wanted money to take a PICTURE of, even though we were buying) and other small items and jumped back in the truck.  As we did, we noticed the rain clouds just behind us, and started driving off, thinking we'd outdrive it.


Then it was picnic time.  Previously planned (unbeknownst to me) for a picnic at the crater, Amelia pulled out a bag from the cabin that contained pears, biscuits (cookies), and coffee.  It was quite the experience to me, sitting in the bed of a truck drinking strong coffee, snacking, talking, and having a picnic.  We passed food up to those in the cabin, and enjoyed the lunch as we sped back toward Mbeya.  Along the way we picked up some bananas from a roadside stand quickly, and also bought a bag of carrots (and by bought, I mean people along the road with bags of carrots shouted out to us, we stopped, they walked up, exchanged the bag for a paltry sum, and we drove off). The produce was incredibly cheap: a huge bag of fresh, (unintentionally) organic carrots (probably 2-3 pounds easily) for 1000TZS (or 60 cents); three avocados bigger than any you'd see in the US for the same price.  Again, almost guiltingly cheap.


As we grabbed our bag of carrots, the rain let us know we had not won the race.  The clouds above us had swarmed from every direction it seemed, and soon our picnic was over and I was crouched in a ball with my arms beneath my bent knees and my head tucked down.  The rain became harder, colder, and painful at times.  The cold wind rushing through the back of the truckbed didn't make it any better, and so we all crunched in toward the front of the bed to take some shelter from the driving precipitation.  Finally after about 10 minutes the rain ceased, the sun broke out, and we were drying for the second time that day.  I crawled my way back to the back of the bed and stretched out, enjoying the now sunny wind that was dryig me off.


It was another joy to see all of the streets of Mbeya as we retraced our path home, and before I knew it we had passed Mbeya hotel and were at our gate!  We all took our soaked shoes and socks off, leaving them at the door, and came inside.  Carmel was gracious enough to allow me to shower first despite my protestations.  My mud-covered back and trip in the windy portion of the bed of the truck apparently garnered a combination of pity and sympathy.  I showered, and despite ever trying to not make a huge puddle in the curtainless tub, I enjoyed it immensely.  I dried, put on fresh clothes, and felt AMAZING.


A new man, I spent a few minutes recounting the events of the day with my housemates, then slipped away for what I thought would be a one hour nap, setting my alarm for quarter after six.  I found out 2.5 hours later that my alarm clock alarm doesn't work anymore, so I stumbled out into the living room at quarter to 8.  The rest of the group had just ordered our chicken dinner, as we had planned earlier, and two left to pick it up from town.  Carmel, Amelia, and I sat talking about things in general, principally comparing notes from residency and medicine in america vs Africa.  As we did, the electricity credits for the house ran out, but we just sat and talked after asking Josh and Cherisse to pick up more from in town.  Certainly if it were as simple as that, navigating this city couldn't be too terrible once you learned it, I thought.


Finally, dinner arrived at the house, and we sat and ate delicious Indian-spiced chicken with "masala chips" (fries with indian spices) at the table all together.  It was a great way to relax, finish the evening, and fill our bellies before bed.  After talking a while after dinner, we carried our plates to the kitchen, too exhausted to do the dishes that night.  In less than a few moments the house was dark and we were all in our bedrooms ready to sleep.  Having gotten a head start, I decided to do some photo transferring off of my phone and blogging about the day.  At midnight, I cut myself off for the day and called it a night, glad to have survived the stupidest thing I've ever done, and glad for the experience knowing that I wouldn't end up as a "Lost American Hiker" story on CNN after all.


  1. I am dying to see a picture of the field of sun flower "seeds"? I can imagine a field of sun flowers, but of seeds? :-)

  2. So what was the stupidist thing you ever did. I skimmed the article but did not see the stupid thing.

    A two hour mass? I would not make it in Mbeya.

  3. The stupidest thing was hiking in what seemed like such dangerous conditions while dehydrated, light-headed, and in the rain over slick stones, steep declines, and narrow paths with steep drop offs on either side...

    ...and yes, fields of sunflowers...though technically there were seeds in each of the flowers, so still technically a field of sunflower seeds!