Stories begin at the rupture, the break from the routine. What makes a story is the cutting edge of the abnormal slicing into the normality of our lives, challenging the structure we have arranged to extract meaning from the seeming stillness of an existence without movement. My life in Lichinga is still, its soundtrack the bellowing of the wind against my concrete walls and the chirping of the birds in the tree beyond my living room window. Yijuni yikutama pa citela. The birds sit in the tree. They always sit in the tree. I listen to them in the mornings while I drink my tea. I read a poem in between sips, in between excited chirps. I check the Google Alert on Mozambique. Every morning. I have constructed the scaffolding of my life to find meaning in the stillness, an organized routine to shape my days, a tree with branches delicately woven into clockwork. Time flutters in the leaves. The birds sit in the tree.
But travel challenges the structure. It is the rupture. Travel is fast, exciting. It is go. We seem to find meaning in motion. It moves us to a vantage point from which to evaluate the scaffolding we have constructed, to soften the rigidity of our sedentary habits. Travel opened a path that led me to the top of Kilimanjaro, the tallest vantage point I could find in Africa.
We’re sitting in the mess tent at camp. I can’t recall which camp, but I still have some notes scribbled in my journal, so it must have been the third or fourth day. The end blurs together. Too much for my body to handle. Frail, feeble. What happened to my support? We, the group of Americans ascending the mountain, are discussing soups. Chris says his favorite soups are jambalaya and chili. But those aren’t really soups, someone voices. I concur. Chili is in its own class. We debate. Matthew sits quietly at the end of the table, enduring our discussion. He is forty. Tall, thin. Matthew has been a guide on the mountain for seven years. He has three children, the oldest of which is eleven. He is surprisingly old for an African father. A conservative man. He speaks calmly, always. We try to include him in the soup debate. “Matthew, what is your favorite soup?” He chews on the question for a moment. “I like onion soup,” he says. One of the Americans, well-intentioned, continues the line of questioning, “What, like a nice French onion soup?” Matthew replies, “Like an African onion soup, I think.” Matthew takes our heart rates and oxygen levels and leaves. He must ask himself how he came to babysit a bunch of privileged white kids with such a deep concern for the nature of soup. But he knows the nature of his job: to help us get to the top no matter what.
Matthew becomes my support. Literally. Unfiltered water for the first two days on the mountain, most likely, caused colitis – a bacterial infection in my large intestine. This, after seven weeks of stomach issues in Mozambique. The doctor in Dar es Salaam can push on my intestines like a piano key, down and slightly to the left of my belly button, and make my insides sing like a gurgling brook.
Day six, the ascent: we leave base camp at midnight to arrive at sunrise. Snow fell the previous evening. I greeted the falling flakes from inside the latrine. Extra loperamide to slow my bowels for the summit. Never felt this weak before. Borrow a trekking pole from Anthony. Matthew gives me his gloves. Leave my mark behind some rocks while the group walks on. We reach Stella Point as the sky pinkens. Glaciers on both sides of the trail. Clouds below us. The final stretch to Uhuru peak I can hardly recall. A slow, focused drive. I make it. Smile for some photos. Time to go. Body weak. Sleepy. Matthew encourages us to descend as quickly as possible, flee the altitude. I lead the charge downhill for the first few minutes (Five? Ten?), boots sinking into the soft earth. Legs burning. Need a break. Hands on thighs – isn’t there any meat covering my femurs anymore? Legs give out. Can’t quite hold myself up. Matthew holds me on one side; I plant the trekking pole on the other. We get to base camp. Sleep a couple hours. They wake us up, tell us we’re going all the way down the mountain today. Better for my health. I just want to sleep. I carry myself for the first few hours to Millennium camp. Pace too slow, legs not strong enough. Two porters support my arms so we can reach Mweka camp more quickly. Frequent stops for diarrhea. The loperamide has worn off by now. Mweka at the edge of the rainforest. Wrap me in a sleeping bag and strap me to a rolling stretcher. A human wheelbarrow. Four people controlling the pace downhill. Matthew is there. Stairs. Bounce bounce brain damage. We make it. Cancel safari. Ciprofloxacin. Bus to doctor in Dar es Salaam. Body emaciated. Height still above six feet. Weigh in at 135 pounds. Urine, feces, blood tests. Chest x-ray for blood in my cough. Following Monday confirms probably just bacterial infection. Cipro does the job.
A rooftop bar in Dar es Salaam. High Spirits. Entry fee. Dance floor lights up like a game show board. The high rises of the African metropolis all around. The Indian Ocean. Tequila Ann. Two shots with lime and salt. No, not reposado, she says in Swahili. I only drink silver. On the dance floor. Bieber – when did he make good music? I’m missing more than just your body. When she dances, rolls her hips like a calligrapher stenciling letters. Shirt soaked through with sweat. Find the breeze flowing across the rooftop. Meaning in motion. Blister under big toe. A dropped glass, shards underfoot. On the streets below we had walked. Two in front, two behind. A car pulled up slowly to the two behind. Unawares. A torso leans out the window and shoves one of the girls, rips her purse from her neck and drives away. Spirits are high on the rooftop. Is it too late now to say sorry? Sweat. Tequila. Shards underfoot.
Crossing the border back into Mozambique feels like coming home. It is the most pathetic border station I’ve seen. Some guards sitting beneath a structure of dried grass control the in and out flow through a single gate that can be lifted for cars to pass. No fences on either side. People wander in and out. The parking lot at Shoprite in Lilongwe is more controlled. The porosity of the international boundary underscores the silliness of the concept– a random line traced on a map divides identities like a cleaver. As soon as I step past the gate, I am at home. I can finally communicate freely again. Language, the capacity to express oneself, plays a larger role in identity than I previously believed. In Malawi and Tanzania, I began to feel trapped. Chichewa and Swahili were fun initially, every interaction like a miniature crossword. But unfinished crosswords are aggravating. I relished the feeling of Portuguese on my tongue after so long without. The feeling of control flowed back into my veins. The frailty I felt – the lack of structure – began to dissipate. I could see my scaffolding, begin to reconstruct the foundation based on new experiences and appreciation for the old. Don’t cling to habits, don’t cling to the routine. Utilize them, let them support you, but don’t forget that life twists like branches after sunshine. The birds sit in the tree, but they’re not a permanent feature.
I only heard real excitement enter Matthew’s voice once during the hike. He is fluent in English, but it is not his first language. That does something to expression. With little prompting he turned to Erin, “May I ask you just one question? Is Jimmy Carter still alive?” The inquiry caught us by surprise, but Erin informs Matthew that, the last she heard, Jimmy Carter is still alive despite a battle with brain cancer. “Oh,” he says. “Because I met him once, when I was a boy. He came to Moshi when he was president. He came into town with all of those fancy cars. We were boys then and we all ran out to greet him.” He waves his hand in the air, pretends to be a child again and softly yells, “Hi, white man!” Matthew smiles at the memory. He continues, “It was so exciting for us, you know, to see him. That’s why I wanted to know if he is still alive. Thank you for telling me.”