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Climbing Kilimanjaro: Adventures in Toilet-Free Living

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51PG0rn7SzL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA160_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 Authorthat 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.

13 Comments

  1. Love it,
    Kobie

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. I look forward to sharing this with John. He and I climbed Kili in 1999 and few things were funny during the week long climb. My most vivid memory is the sight of porters, weighed down with five or six backpacks rolled in a tarp strapped to their backs, running along side us –they were smoking and wearing flip flops. They would run ahead to set up camp so that we could collapse upon arrival. Incredible. At the end of our climb, we learned that these same porters would complete the trip two more times in that same month.

    • Hi Louise, glad you also got to climb Kili! I agree – seeing the porters with their incredible load was the most amazing sight, and the knowledge that they’d complete the trip several times in a month, sometimes even several times in a day, like when they went back down to the creek to fetch water so that we could drink and wash, or when the one guide had to go all the way back to the last hut to retrieve the climbing permit that had to be signed off each night and had been forgotten that morning. The porters and guides and the way their world intersects with yours when you spend a week with them was for me one of the best parts about climbing Kili, or if not the best, then the part that got me thinking the most. I hope you get to read my book:-) It’s always funnier in hindsight, which is why I love writing about the (often crappy) stuff that happens to me.

  3. Louise! I had no idea you had made this climb! Sine talks about the porters smoking (weed) and running up the mountain, as well! Amazing. I want to hear more about your experience!

  4. By the way, Jennifer, I LOVE the title. I should have consulted with you when I had to pick the one for my book, you have no idea how agonizing it was. Adventures in toilet-free living – very well put!

  5. I think I have waited too late to want to climb the Mount, but would enjoy doing it vicariously by reading Sine’s book.

    • I think vicariously might be enough for me, too, Mom! 🙂 It’s a fun read!

    • I hope you do read it, Marion! Although I personally think it’s never too late – I do mention a couple in my book who were going to be the oldest man and woman summiting, they were right behind us by a week but I didn’t find out until later!

  6. Pingback: Book Publishing Milestone: Paperback Out the Door! | Rhymes with Melusine

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