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I first saw Kilimanjaro 20 years ago. I was sweating in a banana plantation. The mountain was just there, improbably rising from the rich red dirt I was standing in. The summit was hazy and the snowcap could have been a cloud. The smell of the dirt and fermenting bananas are deeply embedded in my memory of the mountain.
The odd thing is that that couldn’t possibly have been the first time I saw it. I almost certainly first saw Kilimanjaro flying into Arusha, and I certainly saw it before feeling so small in that forest of banana trees. Memory is funny. Imperfect. What isn’t fleeting seems to be cemented by random shocks, unexpected encounters. In this case, the smell of rotten bananas and dirt.
I didn’t climb the mountain. I was with my 8 year old son. But I promised I would one day.
I’d seen Kilimanjaro before arriving in Africa, through Hemingway’s eyes. It was The Snows of Kilimanjaro that made me take the detour to Arusha in the first place. I don’t know what I thought I’d find there. Resignation? Sadness? A cold woman? Death? It didn’t matter. I had to go.
I am often pushed by an idea towards an object, or place. The despair and loneliness in The Snows pushed me to Kilimanjaro. The masculin bravado in For Whom the Bell Tolls pushed me to Madrid. A story about a viper biting a small boy pushed me to a kibbutz when I was just 16. A Borges short story pushed me to Buenos Aires. I stayed four years. The King and I pushed me to Bangkok where I might still be if it weren’t for a virus that pushed the planet into suspended animation.
After a year of confinement, I want to get out. I want to let myself be pushed by some of my obsessions. The Snows of Kilimanjaro is an old one that was resuscitated by all the hiking I’ve been doing.
I also want to get back to the ocean. I love the ocean. I love that the way we perceive it depends entirely on our perspective. From above, motion but no life. From below, tranquility and an abundance of life. A line from America’s Horse with no Name captures this nicely:
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise all above
When I’m on the ocean I wrestle with perpetually moving mountains. Very rarely am I even reminded of the underground life. But when I’m in the ocean – swimming, snorkeling, or diving – I’m in another world. Motion is mostly slow. No sounds except for my own breathing, a constant reminder that I don’t really belong since I can’t survive on the volume of oxygen trapped in the water.
All creatures are driven by hunger but being driven by ideas is unique to humans. Which gets me back to Kilimanjaro.
In Hemingway’s day a climber could find a frozen leopard near the summit. It’s assumed that the leopard was starving and followed prey too far. Instinct likely told it not to follow, but hunger won. Hunger always wins. And so do ideas.
Ideas are latent action, movement or construction. In confinement all of my ideas are necessarily funnelled into building.
I’m loving building, but I long to move. I want to go back to East Africa, transit through London, sleep in Colonial style in Nairobi, fly over the African bush, and then climb. When I do, I’ll let you know.
In the meantime I’ll keep publishing blogs and watching where they’re being read. My last blog was read in America, the UK, Canada, Italy, Singapore, Bulgaria, Brazil, Switzerland, Chile, Latvia, Holland, Russia, and Ukraine. As I scan through the list I imagine getting on a plane to a city in each of these countries. It’s a funny way to travel, but it’s the best I can do under the circumstances.
I hope this one is read in Tanzania. I’ll be watching.
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