The rain started as a faint drizzle when we got out of the car, the droplets barely visible to the naked eye. There were nine of us plus two guides, both from the nearby Maasai village.
We had been driving through their lands the entire day, bumbling along unpaved dirt roads with the rolling hills in the background. Children ran alongside the car, shouting in Maasai, pinching their thumb and index fingers together to form the universal symbol of “give me money.” The deeper into the lands we went, the more the animals appeared. Goats and cattle being herded by the sharp crack of the stick. Zebras and wildebeest galloping in the fields, the young ones struggling to keep up. Giraffes, lean and tall, grazing on the grasses beneath them. Animals in the wild – it’s one of the most serene sights to behold.
In the Maasai lands in northern Tanzania the past is very much alive. It’s a culture with roots from the beginning of mankind. Clutching spears and regal sticks with smoothed edges, the men herd cattle and goat to and from the watering hole as the animals, their most prized possession, graze along the way. The women, beautifully adorned in vibrant red and blue kangas, with delicately gaudy necklaces and bracelets, strolled along with buckets of vegetables and buckets of water on their heads. It’s an image of the past, of what’s never changed for the Maasai. Their culture, rooted as deep as the grasses of their lands, is imbedded with a pride and resiliency unseen in most parts of the world. It’s admiring. It was also daunting.
Ol Doinyo Lengai, “The Mountain of the God,” as the Maasai refer to it, stands 2,980m tall. It’s not the most majestic mountain in Tanzania, that mantel claimed by Kilimanjaro standing 5,895m. But Lengai is certainly the most difficult. For all you hear about Kilimanjaro and its status as one of the world’s seven peaks, it doesn’t have the cultural connotation, a real, true, Tanzanian legacy, as Ol Doinyo Lengai does. An active volcano, a representation of the Maasai heritage of their past, a protector of their lands and lifestyle – Lengai is everything that embodies the Maasai, their strength and willingness to battle adversity with keeping true to their past.
It’s for this reason we were unprepared to battle Lengai, to summit it and admire its bubbling, lava core. Lengai was too strong for us. It tested us, pushed us to our limits, further than Kilimanjaro did.
The faint drizzle turned into a downpour, droplets the size of golfballs raining upon the nine of us. The first storm soaked us from head to toe, our waterproof gear no match for the African rains, for the volcanic rains. We pressed forward, our Maasai sticks clutched in hand, stabbing the rubble and dirt with every step. Holding that stick, a particularly crafted Maasai emblem, we felt empowered. We felt wise, enough to believe we’d conquer Lengai. But then, after a period of dryness, the second storm erupted.
It wasn’t for a lack of trying. We poured every ounce of stubbornness and leg muscle into the climb, but it wasn’t enough. The second storm would spell our doom. Told we were a mere two hours from the top, we had to turn around. The gravel and dirt swiftly turned to smooth, wet rock making it nearly impossible to find your footing. Some of us felt stuck. Some of us felt tired. Some of us felt exhausted, unable to carry on, to be as strong as the Maasai. So we turned around, only to be stranded on a slab of rock, chilled to our cores. Shivering uncontrollably, we didn’t know when the storm would stop. Water gushed down on both sides, Lengai testing us, telling us to turn back. Then she threw rocks at us, daring us to carry on further. We didn’t.
I’ve been challenged in Tanzania. These past 11 months have been the most eye-opening, life changing experience of my life. You learn lessons in Tanzania, in a developing country, and Lengai surely taught me something:
No matter how strong you think you are, how stubborn you appear to be, there are some things in life that can’t be conquered and you have to be at peace with this lesson. You meet someone that grips your soul, holds you close, makes you feel like the world will never end – to know there’s an expiration, at least for the time being, is difficult. It’s more than difficult. It’s accepting this, coming to grips with reality, that this feeling you have will disappear for the time being, is one of the saddest things a person can go through in life. Much like the unconquerable volcano, you have to submit to reality, that some things can’t be helped and life goes on.
All you can do is hope for the best, hope that you’ve learned something meaningful that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life, and that feeling you’ve treasured for a short period, will return to you, someway, somehow.
I cried. At first I teared and thought it would go away. It didn’t. The tears only came faster and in bigger quantities. Snot was flying from my nose. My eyes – already bright red from the accumulated dust over the last five days of hiking up that godforsaken mountain – were swelling beyond control. The lump in my throat expanded like a balloon with too much helium.
My mental breakdown was about to commence on top of a dormant volcanic mountain – how tragically fitting.
I should preface this by saying I was alone at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro when the waterworks began. My fellow trekkers won’t even know of my misery until they read this. I held it together even after watching some of my barely lucid trekking partners cry after reaching Uhuru Peak, 5,895m above the clouds. Before we began our descent, I motioned to Joseph, our head guide, that I wanted to hang around a little bit longer to photograph the expiring glaciers. Everybody should go without me. I’d catch up.
As I watched our crew turn around and slowly disappear along the ridge, I stood there and just started crying. I bawled my fucking eyes out. There were so many damn tears that I took off my gloves and started wiping my face with the backside of my hands, collecting all the snot along the way and flinging it to Kenya on one side of the mountain and Tanzania on the other.
Pull it together dude, I kept telling myself. You’re not a crier. You don’t cry. You can’t remember the last time you cried. Was it 6th Grade when you lost that basketball game? This is unsightly and weird and plain stupid… so why can’t you stop?
The truth is, I don’t know why I cried.
Maybe it’s because I was running on fumes at that point, having trekked 4-7 hour days for the past five days before waking up at 11PM to summit the remaining 1200m through the middle of the night.
Maybe it’s because summit night was mentally the hardest thing I’ve ever done, with zero intention of ever doing again.
Maybe it’s this or maybe it’s that.
All I’ll say is that we try so hard to portray a confidence and a grasp of every situation in life that our guard never truly comes down. We forget what it feels like to simply let go once in a while and embrace whatever happens, not worrying about consequences upon consequences and analyzing every damn detail. And you know what, it felt good to let it out, to be free of whatever internal-judgement and ridiculous expectations I consistently place upon myself.
Yet, I did gather myself and put on my sunglasses before catching up with the group, making sure they didn’t know I shed a single tear.
One step at a time, I guess.