Did you know that there is a small but thriving community of South African expats in Nashville? One of the honorary members is Eva Melusine Thieme, who lived in Johannesburg for three years with her husband and four children. Among other adventures, Sine and her 16-year-old son Max climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, and you can now read her funny, wry, and moving account of that experience in Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life.
The first section of her book covers the planning and anticipation of the climb as well as her motivation: “My gut tells me that if I leave Africa without at least trying to see the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I’ll feel incomplete… All I can think is that deep within me I must have a longing to do something meaningful… to scale something of magnitude. But not too much magnitude, mind you, and if you think about it, Mount Kilimanjaro is the perfect candidate for just such a mid-magnitude type of endeavor.” This sentiment reveals a lot about Sine Thieme. Kilimanjaro is, after all, the highest point in Africa, at 19,341 feet above sea level.
Preparing for the trip physically, gathering the right supplies, and managing her family of four is no easy feat. She makes multiple trips to the local Trappers, agonizing over the proper coat and sleeping bag and other necessities. She happily discovers a box of “Little Hotties” (hand-warmers) from Costco in their garage, accidentally shipped to Johannesburg from the States with their other things. She also learns a great deal about the many products designed to ease the burdens of toilet-free living.
Sine does not embark on a rigorous training program in advance of the climb; her life really doesn’t permit it. Also, she just doesn’t like the idea of it: “My philosophy – and it has served me fairly well in life – is to avoid doing unpleasant things in preparation for something unpleasant.” She reads advice on line and in books and notices that one phrase keeps coming up: pole, pole, which is Swahili for slowly, steadily. She resolves to remember these words.
The day finally arrives – September 2, 2012 – and Sine and her son Max are off. They travel with a group of ten, seven adults (all friends) and three teenage sons. About thirty porters will carry their things, and a marvelous guide named Godlisten (“Gody” for short) and his assistant Hillary lead the group. Sine devotes a chapter to each day of the 7-day climb, and I have never felt so strongly that I was on a journey I wasn’t actually on. I felt the exhaustion and camaraderie along the way, sharing each day’s challenges and pleasures. I saw the rainforest at the lowest elevation and the “bleak but sunlit alpine desert” as they climbed higher; I always felt the terrain beneath my feet. I felt like I was listening in on their regular topics of conversation:
Hiking on Kilimanjaro – or any other mountain, I presume – reduces your topics of interest to three things: when will I eat, where will I sleep, and where do I s—, excuse my language. And not only will you be preoccupied with this. Everyone else in your group will be more in tune with your bodily functions than you ever wished for. Part of this is fueled by boredom and taking an interest in your fellow man to an extent you wouldn’t under normal conditions, and part of it is ruled by strategy. (“I tried my best to get in there ahead of major infiltration by others in our party” is the confession of one veteran Kili climber when asked about the toilet tent.)
Throughout, Sine is deeply grateful for the work of Gody and the porters: “Just thinking about all the effort surrounding our daily feeding makes me ashamed of ever having complained about the hassles of cooking for my family. (Although not entirely. It is a hassle to cook for my family).”
In the end, I felt able to share in some of her exhilaration at reaching the summit after a grueling final stage of the journey. During that last excruciating ascent, she finds her way to a spot right behind Gody:
It’s a funny thing. Some people are better to walk behind than others, one of the rather useless things you learn during a week of hiking on Kili. Unless you view it as a metaphor for going through life, and then it isn’t as useless at all. In any case, sticking to Gody like a tick was what worked for me: not a wasted movement; his sure step; his calm confidence; and the singing. Oh, the singing!
In her epilogue, Sine lists the 20 things Mount Kilimanjaro taught her. The journey gave her a lot to think about – and will encourage you to think about your own life’s journey. Kilimanjaro Diaries is available for your kindle or iPod at Amazon.com, and the paperback will be available very soon!
Reading this book does feel like you’re reading someone’s diary: what you find is both intimate and conversational. All diaries in some form or fashion imagine an other – a reader. Sine kept me smiling, but I also felt the honor of being invited to hear her deeply personal reflections.
Sine chronicled her family’s adventures while living in South Africa at the blog Joburg Expat. Now living close by in Brentwood, Tennessee, she is working on a book about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car. To learn more, visit her author website, RhymeswithMelusine. She is good company, and reading her Kilimanjaro Diaries is a real treat.