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A Not So Tropical Christmas
Now that I’ve reached the age where I remember more of my past than look forward to the future (truth hurts, everybody gets older, right?), people ask me what my best Christmas is. Remembering what the all time greatest present is happens to be an easy one (essay BLOG posting – 2/23/12 and in the “Silverton Style” book). The all time greatest Christmas is a bit more on the esoteric side of the ledger. In point of fact, I didn’t get any presents that year. No Christmas trees could be found within 10 or 20 miles of the place I happened to be either. I ended up going to bed on Christmas Eve dirty, hungry, and shivering like a South Pacific islander trapped on a whaling ship headed to Antarctica. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and visions of sugarplums happened to be the last things dancing through my head as I closed my eyes on X-mas Eve.
Christmas in Kenya Essay pg. 2
My first Christmas as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya had myself and a group of friends deciding we wanted to climb Mt. Kenya. A 17,000” massif staring me directly in the face every morning when I woke up. Being a scant 5 miles south of the equator and right outside the back door of Nyeri, the place where I was stationed.
Myself and the other volunteer I worked with on the set-up
of our tree nursery/agroforestry center found ourselves involved
in all sorts of little jobs getting the place off the ground.
Buying materials, hiring workers, and plotting the layout of the
center. Since they happened to be the one’s controlling the
purse strings, this involved having to be in regular contact
with officials from the Kenyan Ministry of Energy. Talking to
the folks at U.S. Aid for International Development was also
required (hence the reason they asked for Peace Corps
volunteers). Basically we had lots of government organizations
with their fingers in the pot. An extremely convoluted
bureaucracy? Do most government entities work in any other way?
As a result, even though we were actually fairly close to
the mountain, the two of us got a late start linking up with the
rest of our volunteer friends. They’d started up the mountain a
day head of us, so that meant having to play catch-up from the
very beginning. Moving around like your typical chicken that’s
just been decapitated.
Christmas in Kenya Essay pg. 3
X-mas Eve morning of our expedition, we made good progress
at catching up to the others and soon found ourselves walking
down the road with the northern flank of Mt. Kenya right in
front of us. From there we managed to catch a series of rides
that got us closer to our destination, and by early afternoon
began trudging up the mountain after entering the national park.
At that point things got interesting in terms of the terrain we found ourselves traversing up. At the base of Mt. Kenya you’ve got an extremely thick set of bamboo forests. We managed to make our way up the trail as it cut through them in fairly effortless fashion. Not all that many complaints from the peanut gallery either. Then we hit “The Vertical Bogs”.
Some of you might be wondering why it’s referred to as an
“upright marsh,” and prior to getting to them so did we?
Basically what you’ve got with the “vertical bogs” are clumps of
grass interspersed through a huge field of mud. More conducive
to most duck migration pit stops actually. Just to add an extra
element of fun to the proceeding, you have to hike uphill while
jumping from one vegetative island to the next. A 50 lb. pack is
strapped to your back as well. A pleasurable experience? Not
quite, unless you’re into the masochism side of things.
Our Christmas Eve mud jaunt suddenly took the entire
afternoon and we finally slogged our way through the bogs just
as the sun was starting to set that day. All these years later
Christmas in Kenya Essay pg. 4
one of the things that stands out in my mind about the Kenya PCV
years is the fact that while spending any amount of time at the
equator I saw very few sunsets. The transition from day to night
almost seems instantaneous at the equator, i.e. one minute
you’re hiking through late afternoon sun, five minutes later its
pitch black.
Granted there are sunsets, but on that particular day it
sure didn’t seem that way. Trudging uphill through a bog with
mud up to our knees, darkness sure seemed like it closed in on
us at a lightning fast pace.
We were wet, got colder the further up the mountain we
trudged, and hunger was now a newfound consideration. Misery
loves company so both of us did our fair share of complaining in
an attempt to cheer ourselves up. Hence we chose to totally
disregard the fact that it happened to be Christmas Eve.
Luckily we found an abandoned hikers hut after stumbling through the dark for an hour and decided to spend the night with sort of a roof over our heads. Clearing a spot to roll out the sleeping bag was a major undertaking. Not even bothering to try and fix ourselves anything to eat was the next order of business. We were way too tired to waste any energy so we shared a Cadbury candy bar. Besides, the inside of our home for the night was like the Bat Cave after an electrical malfunction and the air conditioning set at maximum output.
Christmas in Kenya Essay pg. 5
Waking up to discover the boots you took off the previous
night had frozen to the floor is actually a good way to get
moving in the morning. My buddy and me were basically faced with
two choices in this situation. 1. Knock the ice off our boots,
put them on and start moving so we could warm up. Or 2. Lie
there and pretend we weren’t freezing. We chose the former.
The rest of that chocolate bar from the previous night
happened to be breakfast, and it must’ve energized us. Maybe the
fact that it was Christmas morning also had something to do with
the situation? Whatever it was, we managed to catch up to the
stragglers in our group by mid morning. From there we blazed up
the trail to the mavericks in our party attempting to bag Point
Lenana is the third highest spot that a person can climb on Mt. Kenya without using technical gear. At an elevation of 16,355’, only one part of an extinct volcano crater. Actually 700’ lower than Batian, the highest point of the second highest peak on the African continent.
The Gods must’ve been manipulating the weather as we drew
closer and closer to the summit. Suddenly the clouds lifted and
we soon found ourselves on the peak looking out over a suddenly
clear horizon. A glorious vista, and almost as vivid as a Cobalt
Blue Sky day back home in Colorado.
Christmas in Kenya Essay pg. 6
After bagging the peak, the five of us trudged back to
base camp and everybody in the group prepared that evening’s
entrée. A huge pot of spaghetti with every ingredient we could
find at our disposal thrown in, and tasting quite unlike any
type of Italian pasta you’ve ever eaten.
While preparing dinner, Christmas tunes from a gigantic
cassette player one of my buddies hauled all the way up the
mountain jingled through the air. The player must’ve weighted at
least 20 or 30 pounds just by itself-a real testament to my
friend’s fortitude. The music only added to the strangeness of
the situation. Here it was Christmas day, I found myself at
15,000’ just south of the equator, waiting an interminably long
time for a pot of water to boil, and everybody sharing a small
bottle of spirits one of us stuffed in their pack. The moment
was incredible and all these years later it makes me smile.
One of the beautiful things about the U.S. Peace Corps is
the fact that if things work out for you in terms of your site,
the people you work with, and your fellow volunteers, everyone
becomes like your surrogate family. I’m sure all us volunteers
that day would rather have spent the holiday with family, but
then we chose to be 10,000 miles away from American soil
advancing the cause of mankind. That afternoon it sure felt like
we were with family on Christmas. Less sibling fisticuffs and
Christmas in Kenya Essay pg. 7
the inevitable arguments with a heavily inebriated uncle Festus,
so it wasn’t quite the same.
While that Christmas on the summit of Mt. Kenya wasn’t one
of the greatest experiences of my life, it did happen to be the
most memorable Christmas I ever experienced. It sure didn’t feel
like it when I was slogging through those bogs buried in mud up
to my crotch, and carrying a fifty-pound pack on my back.
Finally linking up with all my buddies made up for all those
hardships. I’ve ended up ignoring the bad stuff as time has gone
by, and that’s the way it should be.