The flight from Doho to Kilimanjaro is the smoothest I can remember. For six straight hours, the plane glides through forgiving skies as though bargained before takeoff.
I sit quietly in an aisle listening to faint Italian prose spoken by the women around me. My mind is wearied though clear, a blend foreign to me. My thoughts flow into brooks and streams before making their way into a pool that is rarely serene.
One year ago, there was an angst that belied my poise — an uncertainty about what it might take to push a pair of cranky knees and wiry frame up the tallest mountain in Africa. “Poli, poli” became my mantra, echoed from the chapped lips and sun-beaten face of a man who’d scaled his own share of peaks, some more perilous that Kilimanjaro. “Slowly, slowly,” he’d say as we made our ascent.
In those long walks from one campsite to the next, an unlikely friendship took shape. My guide told me how the priesthood once called, about the joys of spoiling his children, and how he still dreamt of the father who passed when he needed him most.
In return, I told him about growing up in California, how New York had shaped my character, and my relentless pursuit of a dream that refused to give back.
Days vanished like seasons, the perfect union of silence and speech. Porters carrying the bulky bags of westerns shuffled past, a look of exhaustion etched on their hard features. I understood that for some the options are limited, the stars of luck seldom align.
Choice is a freedom — a currency many don’t get to exchange.
By the time we’d reached the top, the sun had risen high above Kenya. The clouds parted like velvet curtains before a matinee, the endless landscape our theater. Never in my life had I better seats to a greater show.
A year later, I found myself standing back on the warm tarmac as tourists snapped photos of the words, “Kilimanjaro Airport.” For those who have ventured to this great continent, they know getting here is a feat in itself.
“Jambo!” I say to air traffic controllers, customs agents, and anyone who will listen. Wide smiles break the plains of their lips as they afford me a comfort to a land foreign from my own.
But what they don’t know is, in my heart, I never left.
I grab my belongings and pass through the sliding doors. An army of bold cab drivers scream and claw for my wearied body to collapse in their caravans. Then suddenly, like a running back splitting defenders I see my guide — my friend.
I’m whisked away as we skip pleasantries and resume as if we parted in the middle of a story, or the cusp of the punch line to a joke. Only this time, there is work to be done as we join forces to begin a venture we dream will thrive and impact a community important to us both.
On that hour-long journey to Moshi, we don’t yet know of the antics that will fill an eleven-hour bus ride to Dar es Salaam. How bright monitors and sapped speakers will blast Christian music peppered with provocative rap videos.
We have no clue of the perilous ride we’ll take in a bajaji as we weave past big rigs and motorbikes, or the time we’ll lose in Stone Town in search of a nondescript Zanzibar apartment.
Because if we knew any of these things, we might make the mistake of trying to alter each event — to make it all more diluted, to make it tame. But that, we know, would defeat what we sought in the first place — to use adventure not as a way of searching for the unknown, but to illuminate that which already lies within.
This is what happens when you return to Africa.