The Story Behind The Picture: Breaking Bread

They say a picture is worth a thousand words – it can be a means of expression, a way of preserving a moment, a method of story-telling, and so on. However, sometimes we can’t truly appreciate a picture until we know the story behind it.¬†

For¬†this reason, I decided to create a subsection in my blog called, “The Story Behind the Picture”. Here, I will take some of my favorite travel pictures and turn them into short stories. These moments and interactions, for me, are what make traveling so¬†enriching: they open your heart, broaden your mind, and ignite your soul.

Thanks for allowing me to share my stories with you! xo 

Morocco

We were four hours into the eight-hour drive to our destination – the Sahara desert! I swayed back and forth as our van hugged the winding roads that were carved along the mountainside. I continued to stare out the window at the dry, desolate environment that surrounded us. Looking into the distance, I noticed some sparse patches of vegetation that were peppered along the hillside. Occasionally we would pass a local, who seemed to be wandering aimlessly with no apparent origin or destination.

My view was interrupted as our van pulled into a small rest area. Our G-Adventure guide, Youssef, had planned a roadside picnic as an opportunity to break up the drive. He had even taken us to a grocery store the night before to pick out our food. We eagerly disembarked the vehicle, excited to dig into our smorgasbord of snacks. Mine was a combination of Moroccan meats and cheeses, mixed with North American comfort foods, such as Pringles and Red Bull.

The area that he chose was perfect: there were large tiles used as flooring with manicured clusters of palm trees to provide ample amounts of shade. It seemed to be a place that the locals enjoyed as well. Further in, there was a small group of people taking turns collecting water from a tall, stone fountain. They all kept to themselves and paid very little attention to us.

Youssef spread out two large, wool blankets onto the tiles for us to sit on. We each sat knee-to-knee around the outer edge with just enough space to fit all fourteen of us. We eagerly dumped out our grocery bags of miscellaneous food into the middle circle, similar to children comparing their loot after a night of trick-or-treating.

As I began to build a sandwich, I noticed a man sitting behind our group on a concrete bench staring at us. He stared at us the same way you would stare at a campfire … blankly with very little authentic interest. Just a fixation point for your eyes while you allow your mind to wander. He was an older Moroccan man with leathery skin and age spots. His narrow face and bony arms gave him a frail appearance. The rest of his physique was cloaked behind baggy clothing. He dressed in a toque, a few layers of long-sleeved shirts, and a loose pair of pin-striped pants. On his feet, were a worn pair of sandals.

I folded up my sandwich and slipped away from our group. As I walked over to him, he seemed as intrigued by me as I was of him. I sat down beside him and tried speaking French; however, he did not seem to understand. I gave up on the idea of verbally communicating and instead, pointed to myself and slowly said “Amanda”. He nodded his head as if he understood. I smiled and handed him over my sandwich. He took it and quietly smiled back. There was an awkward pause and then he began trying to tell me something. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to say. Was he introducing himself? Was he telling me that he’s hungry? Did he want something else? Wait … was he gluten intolerant? Then I began wondering … Are people outside of North America gluten intolerant? … There was no way for us to be able to communicate aside from sign language so I just continued to stare at him as if we were partners in a game of charades. My lack of understanding made me realize why I was always picked last for charades…

Finally, I understood what he was trying to tell me!! He pointed to his mouth and opened wide. Ohhhhhh!!!! He had no teeth! Nothing but gums!! He was trying to tell me that he had no teeth to chew the thick and dry bread from the sandwich! After I understood what he was trying to tell me, I had to chuckle. He smiled back with his empty mouth and proceeded to gum the bread of his sandwich.

Charlie

I heat up his favorite dish in the microwave and put it down in front of him. A meal that used to bring him great joy now turns his head away in disinterest. I can feel myself becoming frustrated, yet desperate because he just won’t eat. I stare at his frail body trying to figure out what to do. His loose skin hangs from its bones since there is no longer any muscle or fat to give it shape. I look into his opaque eyes, which are clouded from his cataracts. They look sad. When I look at him, he turns his head away and pretends to stare off into the distance. I can’t help but wonder, does he resent me for not letting him die? His cancer has spread quickly over the past year and now he just waits,¬†tiredly, for it to consume him…

To fully understand this story, let me bring you back to where it all began…

It was a warm August morning, only a few weeks before my new semester would begin. I had gone into the pet store that day in search of a rabbit with floppy ears. Funny enough, I had actually picked out its name before even deciding to get a new pet. As I walked towards the rabbit cages, near the back of the store, something had caught my eye. I stopped and stared at him as he stared back at me. Intrigued, I could tell that there was something quite extraordinary about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Perhaps it was that he seemed like an old soul, much like myself. In a room full of chaos, he sat there with such¬†a serious demeanor, quietly observing me with his big brown eyes. Whatever it was about him, I knew that I couldn’t walk away.

He was nearly the size of a small bunny, with mottled brown, black, and beige fur. He had subtle hints of white hidden on his chin and chest. His fur was so fluffy that it almost made him appear round. His tail was short, his ears were floppy, and he had a small button nose. He was absolutely perfect. It was at that moment that I realized … he was my Charlie.

img_6818-2

To the average person, Charlie might have been an overpriced mutt, but to me, he was priceless. A true hidden gem. And he quickly became the greatest companion of all time.

Shortly proceeding that day, came some of the darkest and difficult times of my life. As I would sit on the floor, with my head buried in my arms in complete defeat, Charlie would nudge me with his cold, wet nose, as if to reassure me that it was all going to be okay and that I would never be alone.

And he was right. As we climbed our way out of that rut, I was never alone. His loyalty and companionship helped me through those difficult times and allowed it to strengthen and define me instead of breaking me. Charlie stayed patiently by my side as I rebuilt my confidence and rediscovered my lust for life.

In no time, we were hiking trails, conquering mountains, and even spending nights together camping underneath the stars. Heck, we even tried paddle-boarding together (although he wasn’t a big fan of that)! I didn’t have much, but I always had him and wherever I would go, he would always come along.

img_6819

But eventually his body became older and he struggled to keep up. But this wouldn’t stop us from being together! I still carry him along on our adventures because I knew how much he hated to be left behind. Gradually, he became so weak that he was unable to even jump up to his favorite seat on the couch, but I would still pick up him and place him there because I knew how happy it made him.

But now his body is too weak and he is unable to eat. I can see that not even puréeing his food is enough anymore. Crushing his pain medication in his food is not enough anymore. Everything I try to do is no longer enough anymore.

That day in the pet store, twelve years ago,¬†I had always felt like it was him who needed me. I saved him. But now looking back, I¬†see clearly see that it was actually me who needed him. His love and companionship was a constant reminder of the beauty that still existed when all I could see was grey. However, he does need me now … he needs me to let go. As I hold¬†his empty and tired body in my arms, I realize that if I truly love him, then I¬†must say goodbye.

To feel the unconditional bond that is formed when a dog chooses you as his master is one of the greatest and purest gifts of life. Charlie, you loved without the fear of getting hurt. You were loyal without question. You gave without ever asking for anything in return. You listened without judging. And you kept every single secret, as promised.

I want to thank you for choosing me as your master, companion, and family. You have taught me about loyalty, friendship, and love. You have touched the lives of everyone who was privileged enough to meet you.

You are so much more than just a pet or a dog, you are my one and only Charlie. And I will always love you.

img_6820

Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part II)

We watch in awe as the fiery orb in the sky slowly collides into the saffron sands of the Sahara desert. As the sun merges with the earth, its molten sunlight reflects off the sands and is amplified back into the sky to reveal glorious hues of red, yellow, orange, pink, blue, and even violet. We are left breathless … mostly because of the climb but also because of this spectacular moment. Here we stand, teetering on a thin crest of a sand dune, the size of a small mountain, in Morocco! Life IS good! Once the last flame fizzles out, we continue to stare into the evening twilight, as if expecting the sun to reappear, until Youssef finally announces that it’s suppertime.

FB_IMG_1558433566061.jpg

Looking down from where we stand, our campsite looks so small compared to the vastness of the Sahara. The Arabian style tents next to a lone palm tree in the desolate environment of the desert look like a scene from Aladdin. Behind the campsite, our camels are resting in two perpendicular lines. With my shoes in one hand and my camera in the other, I race down the side of this enormous sand mountain, my legs struggling to keep my body upright. I feel like the Road Runner in the Looney Tunes being chased by the coyote. Beep beep! With every step I take, my feet sink through the warm superficial layer of sand and into the cooler layer that‚Äôs hidden below. Once near the bottom, my legs are finally defeated by gravity and, like rubber, they give out and I face-plant into the sand. I quickly shoot back up again and dust myself off, hoping that nobody saw that. I don’t think they did.

Our campsite is built around a common area, made up of overlapping layers of brilliantly colored Persian carpets, used as flooring. In the middle, is a single kerosene lamp next to three short, round wooden tables, covered with a plastic, wine-colored tablecloth. On each table, are the usual Moroccan condiments of fresh olives, olive oil, and almonds. This area is sandwiched between module tenting. To the left, is the kitchen tent, where I can see three of the Berber guides preparing our meal in the dim lighting of a small lamp. The tent beside that one is dark, which I assume is where they sleep and keep additional supplies. To the right of us, is our sleeping area. It’s made up of multiple mod-tents, placed side-by-side, in a rectangular shape. Each tent has two mattresses neatly made up with a pillow, thin cotton bed sheets, and a worn wool blanket.

As we take our seats around the tables, sitting cross-legged on the ground, our guide offers us some mint tea while we wait. This is customary in Morocco, signifying hospitality and friendship. The warm and sweet taste of the tea pleases my palate. As we sip on our tea, we begin going around the table and sharing the names that we had given our camels. I had named mine Carl. Far from being the winning name but he did look like a Carl to me. We also took this time to reflect upon our trip and some of our favorite moments.

It wasn’t long before the guides bring out a large, hand-painted, clay tagine pot for each table. As they remove the triangular cover, an exquisite aroma fills the air! Inside is a steaming stew-like preparation, heaping with beef, carrots, lentils, onions, apricots, tomatoes, turnips, and almonds. We decide that this is the ideal time to pull out the bottles of wine that we got the night before. Since Morocco is a dry country, it was quite difficult to find alcohol. Luckily, we spoke with the manager of a small grocery store who had some bottles hidden in his basement storage. As we eagerly fill our small plates with this warm and hearty offering, we also take this opportunity to toast our new friendships, old friendships, and this amazing adventure that we are fortunate enough to share together. The ingredients of the tagine taste so fresh and are flavored with the spices that Morocco is so well known for; it pairs nicely with our cheap bottles of red wine.

FB_IMG_1558433497081.jpg

Once our meal is done, two of the Berbers pull out a set of drums and sit down with us. Each drum set consists of five handmade drums of various widths tied together. Without saying a word, they begin warming up with a simple rhythmic beat. In sync, they battle in a musical duel, progressively getting faster and faster until they both suddenly stop. There’s a drawn-out pause until one of them cries out something in Berber and then they continue to play again. The music is tribal-like; the man on the left provides the lead vocals in Berber while the other echoes his lyrics.

After playing a few of their traditional songs, they ask for a volunteer to come up and play. Lacking any form of musical talent but enthusiastic to give it a try, I volunteer to go. How hard could tapping a rhythm out on a drum be, after all? Well, it‚Äôs pretty hard. Being a huge Greenday fan, I decide to play “Good Riddance”. My uncoordinated drumming and squeaky voice gives everyone a whole new appreciation for the Berbers’ smooth and beautiful music. ‚Äú‚Ķ I hope you have the tiiiiiiiiiime of your liiiiiiiiifffffffffeeeeeeeee‚ÄĚ (followed by a drum solo ‚Ķ followed by an electrifying finale ‚Ķ‚Ķ followed by ‚Ķ a pity applause).

Apparently, this was enough to make the Berbers decide that it’s time to move forward with tonight’s itinerary because they pick up their drums and lead us to a nearby campfire. They sit down and continue to drum and sing. We gather around as Youssef, our guide, joins in with finger cymbals. We continue to laugh and celebrate under the pitch-dark sky of the desert, as the fire dances along with us to the music.

Knowing in advance that we were having a campfire, I packed some Hershey‚Äôs chocolate, graham crackers, and marshmallows. The Berbers have never heard of s‚Äô mores before, along with some of the other members in our group, so I give a ‚Äúhow-to‚ÄĚ class. Each person is handed their supplies: two crackers, a square of chocolate, a wooden skewer, and a marshmallow. ‚ÄúStep 1‚Ķ‚ÄĚ I begin, ‚Äú‚Ķ place your marshmallow on your skewer. Step 2: roast your marshmallow until the inside is warm and gooey. Be careful not to burn it! Step 3: sandwich your chocolate and cooked marshmallow between the two crackers. Step 4: enjoy!!!‚ÄĚ As the Berbers take their first bite, their minds are obviously blown by this flavor explosion. They are so excited that they ask for seconds and begin referring to me as ‚ÄúFatima‚ÄĚ, which Youssef explains is the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and is one of the four perfect women who are mentioned in the Koran.

As the campfire begins to shrink, we sneak away to a nearby dune. All fourteen of us sit together in silence. As my eyes adjust to the dark, I can make out the silhouette of our campsite with the small flickering of our dying campfire next to it. I look into the sky, which is peppered with millions of stars. Absolute perfection. I have never seen a night sky as flawless as this one. The sand is soft, the air is cool, and my mind is calm. I am overwhelmed with the feeling of pure contentment. I take in a deep breath of the crisp night air. As I exhale, I say ‚ÄúSooooo‚Ķ.. does anyone want to slide down the dunes?‚ÄĚ Everyone is game! We run back to the campsite and begin raiding the kitchen, in search of anything that could be used as a toboggan or crazy-carpet. We find a couple of garbage bags and a serving tray. We run back to the top of the sandhill to try to slide down like we do during the snowy winters back in Canada. The serving tray provides too much friction and we don‚Äôt slide an inch! Someone suggests using our head wraps to devise a slingshot. This is also a fail. One of the members of our group decides to give the garbage bag a try. He rips a hole in the bag for his head and puts it on like a sweater. ‚ÄúShould I poke arm holes?‚ÄĚ he asks. ‚ÄúNaaaaaaaaa!‚ÄĚ we all respond. ‚ÄúOkay, here I go!‚ÄĚ Fully committed, he takes a running start, leaps into the air, and belly flops. Again, too much friction! You can literally hear the wind being knocked out of him, as his chest sinks into the sand and his feet continue the momentum forward and fly over his head. He flips over and lands hard on his back! OUFF! Epic fail.

After admitting defeat, fatigue quickly sets in but we are not ready to say goodnight just yet. We decide to drag our mattresses from the tents out to the common area so that we can sleep under the stars together. Although some were a little hesitant at first, since we were warned to be careful of scorpions and snakes, everyone decides to join in. Youssef’s very impressed because he‚Äôs never had an entire group sleep outside before. I use my headlamp to check my shoes and bag for any scorpions before bringing it to my sleeping area. All clear!

Too excited to sleep, but too tired to stay awake, I crawl under my blankets and stare in disbelief at the sparkling yellow specs scattered throughout this vast, charcoal canvas. Like fine dust, blown into the cool night‚Äôs sky, it made me appreciate how little we really are in such a large universe. In the grand scheme of things, my existence serves no real purpose and is merely a series of serendipitous events. Perhaps the only real purpose of life is, in fact, whatever we ascribe it to be. For me, it’s these experiences and these connections that we make with one another that give my life meaning. My eyelids become heavier with every blink as I try to resist succumbing to sleep because I don’t want this moment to end. As I lie here, semi-awake, I enjoy the heavy silence of the desert as I reflect back upon my day…

FB_IMG_1559155827127.jpg

Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part I)

I stare up into the early morning sky, which is glittered with stars. My eyelids become heavier with every blink as I try to resist succumbing to sleep because I don’t want this moment to end.¬†I look around and see the silhouette of the tents that our group is supposed to sleep in, but instead, we all¬†brought our mattresses outside to sleep under the stars. As I lie here awake,¬†I notice¬†the heavy¬†silence of the desert … well, except for the steady snoring of a lone Berber who is sleeping on the outskirts of¬†our campsite. Perhaps he was exiled due to his overpowering snores.

The tip of my nose tingles as the cool air begins to creep in. I pull my heavy wool blanket higher and tuck it snuggly against my sides. In an effort to combat sleep, I reflect upon this day, which has led me to the best slumber party ever!

* * *

It was like Christmas morning for me! I woke up early, excited that this day is finally here. Today, we will ride off into the sunset on a camel and spend the night camping in the Sahara desert. It gives me¬†butterflies just thinking about it! Although it will take most of the day to get to Merzouga (Mer-zoo-guh), a small town on the edge of the Sahara, it’s nothing compared to the years that many of us have waited for this exhilarating experience.

Our group of fourteen eagerly piles into¬†the van, to claim our unassigned-assigned seats. My husband, Sieu, and I squeeze through to the back. We are sitting in front of the backbench, which is occupied by three young and energetic women from Poland. To our right, in the row of single seats, is a quiet and reserved man from Boston. In front of us is¬†our cluster of five friends who we had planned this trip with. Lastly, seated at the front of the van, is a fun couple from Ontario, and to the right of them is an adventurous solo traveler from Japan who can only speak broken English. “Hallo, it’s me, Youssef!” our guide announces into his microphone. He says this every morning and it always cracks us up. It has become the catchphrase of our trip.

img_5853-1
Camel Crossing

Thanks to our dynamic group, our seven-hour drive flies by quickly! It’s broken up by bathroom breaks, a road-side picnic, and some pretty intense lip-syncing karaoke with Youssef’s microphone. Our van buzzes with giddy excitement with every passing hour. Thinking that we must be getting close, I draw back the curtain¬†and glance out the window. The scenery is flat and desolate – similar to what I imagine Arizona being like. The dry, rocky landscape is peppered with clusters of dead yellow grass. There are sparse areas of green from¬†the grass still¬†struggling to survive in this barren environment. Just then, someone shouts out, “Look!! Desert!!! Straight ahead!!” We all lean in quickly to look out the front window.¬†The winding, paved road, which we have been following for hours, finally has an end. On the horizon, off into the distance, there are large mountains of sand … the Sahara desert!

Our van pulls off of the¬†paved road and onto a battered, worn dirt road. As we drive towards a miniature castle on the edge of the desert, ¬†I stare out the window in disbelief.¬†Surveying the land, it’s impressive how the sand spews out of the desert onto the dry, cracked earth beside it; almost like a sandbox missing its boards. It’s exactly how I imagined it … mounds and mounds of soft, fine sand as far and as wide as the eye can see!¬†It reminds me of the red sands on the dunes that I used to play on as a child when visiting Prince Edward Island.

We step out of the van and make our way to the hotel’s terrace. Once there, Youssef begins helping us wrap our scarves¬†around our heads, similar to the nomads, in preparation for our journey into the desert. Although the nomads (people¬†without a fixed habitation) would wear these shemaghs for protection against the harsh desert conditions, we are sporting them more for the cool¬†photo opportunities!¬†While I am waiting for my turn, I¬†am mesmerized by the two rows of dromedary camels waiting for us on the desert landing. Laying parallel to each other, one row has seven and the other has eight. They are each equipped with a saddle, which has a colorful wool blanket draped over it. On the front of the saddle is a metallic, T-bar handle. The lackluster¬†herd¬†rests there quietly chewing their cud.

When it’s my turn, Youssef takes my long, tattered royal blue scarf, which I recently purchased for 100 dirhams, and begins wrapping it tightly around my head. Around and around and around. Once he nears the end, he rolls the final piece, runs it along my forehead, and tucks it in the back. He then pulls the other end down¬†to provide¬†protection for¬†my face and neck.

img_5864
Our G-Adventures Morocco Casbahs & Desert Group

Once we are all ready, Youssef leads us down the stairs to begin boarding. Alas, our chariots await! I anxiously rush down the large concrete stairs. Before taking my first official step on the Sahara desert, I pause for a second to relish this moment. As I transfer my weight onto the cashmere sand, I can feel it slide and displace under my foot.

After¬†my first foot hits the ground, my other one shoots out rapidly behind it. My focus quickly changes to the dromedaries. I¬†can’t wait to¬†touch them!! I¬†approach the nearest one while the remainder of the group listens to Youssef giving a briefing¬†about our evening. I¬†extend my hand but quickly pull it back in hesitation. Do camels bite? Are they aggressive creatures? I¬†don’t think I have ever been this close to one before…¬†I¬†decide to ask a nearby Berber, who is busy preparing for our outing. “Is it okay to touch them?”, I ask. “Yes. Very safe”, he half-heartedly¬†replies with his heavily accented English. I reach out and touch the back of its¬†neck; I can feel the dirt baked onto his thick, coarse hair. I lean forward to examine his facial features. His long eyelashes mask his dark eyes. His right nostril is pierced with a ring. Attached to it, is a carabiner with a thin rope. His lips are droopy and lined with coarse white whiskers, like an elderly person without their dentures. His head is large and his neck is muscular. His round, bloated body, covers most of his long, slender legs. I scratch hard behind his ears, creating a cloud of dust,¬†which he seems to enjoy as he leans into it.

img_5854
Carl, my camel, smiling pretty for the camera!

There are two Berber guides, who begin helping our group mount the dromedaries. One by one, we board these massive creatures. A man dressed in a silky blue robe, with a light-blue headwrap signals me to the lead dromedary. So routine, this man barely makes eye contact as he takes my bag and hangs it off the saddle. He then instructs me to climb on, hold the handle tightly, and most importantly, lock my elbows. I do as he says. When he gives the signal, my dromedary propels himself forward to gather enough momentum to lift up his hind legs. This sends me forward on a steep decline. Glad I locked my elbows or else I would be eating a pretty big sand-wich hehe. He then jerks back to pull himself up and onto his front legs. And just like that, within seconds, I am towering over the tall Berber who was helping me. He now stands with his head at the height of my knees.

img_5862
Nomad Mandy

img_5861

As we begin our journey along the winding sand dunes, each dromedary is tied to the one in front of them with the rope that is attached to their nose piercing. The lead dromedary is being led by a man on foot. He is a Berber, meaning that he is indigenous to North Africa. He is probably in his late 20’s and walks with very little enthusiasm. His head is wrapped in a scarf, similar to mine, only it’s light-blue. His robe, which is really quite nice, is dark blue with very¬†subtle moon and star patterns on it. Between his shoulder blades and on the cuffs of his sleeves are golden highlights. The pant legs of his jeans peak out and cover most of his worn, leather sandals.

Beyond him is a magnificent sky, with a couple of decorative clouds. The¬†shade¬†of blue in the sky contrasts with the color¬†of the sand; complementary colors directly on opposite sides of¬†the spectrum. Well done, mother nature! You truly are an artist.¬†In the tranquility of the desert, the only noise that I hear is the rhythmic rubbing of my backpack on the saddle¬†caused by¬†the steady sway of my dromedary. It’s very hypnotic. I stare off into the distance. Nothing. Nothingness as far as the eye can see.¬†It’s as calm and serene as my mind is at this very moment.

img_5855
Our Camel Train

When we arrive at our campsite, our guides park our camel train in their usual parking spot. I suspect this by the numerous amounts of small, brown nuggets deposited into the sand. As soon as our feet hit the ground again, Youssef hurries us up to the top of the tallest sand dune to watch the sunset. All fourteen of us chase him along the steady incline of the crest on the dune. With every step I take, my feet sink and slide into the silky, fine sand. As Youssef scurries effortlessly to the top, I try to use his footprints to ease the burn in my quadriceps from the exertion.

Upon reaching the summit, I take a deep breath. The air is dry¬†and unquenchable. I look back and see the remainder of our group still climbing along in a linear path, like ants marching up¬†an¬†anthill. They, too, must be using each other’s footsteps for better leverage. I turn my¬†gaze to¬†the horizon just in time to see the¬†blazing sun¬†sink into the rolling hills of sand. As¬†I enjoy the¬†final glow of twilight, I¬†had no idea that is only a prelude of¬†the shenanigans that await us.

img_5858


To Be Continued In…

Nomad Mandy Wanders the Sahara Desert (part II)

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part II)

IMG_0407
The sun rising over Mount Kilimanjaro

Distance: 12 km
(from the summit to Mweka Camp)
Date: Feb. 2, 2018

I read the yellow words carved out of its wooden planks: “CONGRATULATIONS, you are now at Uhuru Peak… Africa’s highest point …” I am speechless and, surprisingly, emotionless. Time slows down and everything but the sign becomes a blur as I stare at it in disbelief. The sounds from my group begin to muffle, as if being underwater, as I become lost in my thoughts. Wow … we did it … we actually did it.¬†This all seems so surreal.¬†I slowly turn to Sieu, who I can easily spot by his bright orange Arc’teryx parka. He is hugging Paul, one of the guides who had kept a close eye on him during the hike. I look around in the dim light of the early morning to see the silhouettes of my group celebrating this tremendous accomplishment.¬†Time suddenly warps back to normal speed as these thoughts are interrupted by Albert telling our group to move quickly so that we can get a picture in front of the sign.¬†We cannot spend much time lingering at the summit, as the available oxygen is approximately half of what it is at sea level and there are already a few people suffering the effects of the extreme altitude.

Sieu and I sit together on the boulders that are used to secure the Kilimanjaro sign. As the remainder of the group squeezes in, someone hands us a G-Adventures flag to hold. Our guides surround us like the paparazzi while juggling all the cameras that we have given them. As I take a quick look around, I am astonished that all eleven members of our group are here and standing around this sign. Even those two members who were severely nauseated were able to persevere forward to the top. Although still looking rather ill, they did it! We all did it! Six days ago, the eleven of us started this journey as strangers from different corners of the world but today, we stand united with a newfound sense of comradery.

IMG_20180202_060746
Our G-Adventures group standing, breathlessly, at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro

As we are rushed to begin our descent, the horizon suddenly lights up in a blaze of fire as the sun begins to peer over it. This gives shape to the jagged mountain peaks that we have recently ventured across. Leading my eyes to the sunrise is a thin dirt path that is worn through the snow by the hundreds of footsteps before us. We file along this path, one by one. To the right of us is a giant glacier, as if placed to challenge the mountain for the title of the highest point on the continent. It stands alone, off into the distance, like a single bookend with nothing to support. Beyond that, lays a blanket of clouds, which hugs the mountain and stretches far into the distance; the bright morning sun causes these clouds to glow with various hues of yellow and orange. As I stare at the horizon, I am amazed that I can see the curvature of the earth Рmaking it feel as though we are standing on top of the world!

IMG_3579
Beginning our descent from the summit

As we pass Stella Point once again, we take a different route to descend. As opposed to the meandering trail that led us to the summit, this trail seems to have no apparent route – just down. I stand there calculating my approach to this. I study the ground. It’s approximately a 45-degree slope covered in scree. I take a step to test the terrain. My foot slides under the loose stones, searching for some traction. I am alarmed at how physically demanding it is to descend; ascending to the summit was not a physical challenge, but merely a battle of your lungs against the altitude.¬†William shows us the proper technique to descend without causing injury to our ankles or knees but this method causes my quadriceps muscles to ache and burn. I develop my own technique that I use when William is not looking. I skip sideways down the hill – step, step … step, step … step, step … Every hop I make, I can feel loose rocks sliding underneath my feet, causing them to sink deeper into the scree like quicksand. As I descend, alternating between sideways hops and forward steps (when William is looking), I can¬†feel the oxygen becoming richer. Although the air is dusty, it’s very quenching.

Our group has gradually broken off into smaller clumps and there are currently four of us following Paul and William. They pull us off to the side to find a place to sit and give our legs a quick break. As I sit on the loose scree, I stretch out my legs and watch as the pebbles race down the steep slope. It feels so good to sit! I lean back and embrace the warm sun burning through the thin atmosphere. The thought of putting on some sunscreen occurs to me, but it is quickly dismissed as I am too tired to care. Turning my attention to Paul and William, I notice that they have no snacks or water; then it dawns on me Рnone of the guides carry personal gear so that they can carry our gear if needed. I share my water, which is flavored with Lime Gatorade, and hand them some Clif bars РI always bring way too much food in fear of starvation.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After approximately two hours of descending, we reach basecamp and take a quick nap. When it is time to continue our journey, our guides wake us up to pack our gear and move onward to Mweka Camp, where we will be spending our final night. I am not sure if it’s having more circulating oxygen going to my brain, or just the exhilaration of conquering this mountain, but I feel incredible! I have an extra bounce in my step, despite my shaky legs from the brutal descent. I spend most of our walk chatting with Lukie. We share stories about our personal life, our family, our ambitions, and so on.¬†He speaks with such warmth and enthusiasm as he tells me about his first time seeing snow.

Upon arriving at Mweka Camp, our porters are waiting to celebrate our success with us. We sing, dance, laugh, and cry as we say our final goodbyes to these amazing individuals who have devoted themselves entirely to us for the past week. I am amazed at the bond that can be formed in such little time with complete strangers who cannot even speak the same language. Willie, my porter, has shown me such genuine kindness and care. Although this is his job, his actions were never fake or forced and he never asked for anything in return. He just came into my life for one week with the sole purpose of helping me achieve my goal of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.

After supper, we sit around the table in our mess tent for one last time. I reflect upon how this trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro was so much more than I could have ever expected. Like childbirth, you need to live through it to truly appreciate the experience. I had read some books and blogs about Kilimanjaro but nothing can fully capture the beauty and essences of this experience.¬†As I look around the table and see our group laughing and¬†sharing¬†stories with our guides, I am reminded of a saying that I had once heard: It’s the friends that we meet along the way that help us appreciate¬†the¬†journey. It is astounding to think that such an adventure can create and strengthen such bonds between strangers.¬†I have formed such a strong attachment and will truly miss these people who were merely strangers that I was sitting on a bus with seven days ago.¬†Albert, Brunno, Lukie, Paul, and William, our guides, will always have a place in my heart. While we were in our most vulnerable states,¬†they protected and cared for us. They¬†shared their personal stories and culture with us as they took us on an adventure of a lifetime. Each of them will play such a critical role in the stories that I tell my children about the time that I climbed to the rooftop of Africa.¬†

The next day, we pull into the parking lot of the Stella Maris Lodge. As I step off the bus, I see a group that is nervously waiting. They are frantically adjusting and weighing their bags, ensuring that they are within their 15 kg allotment before they depart for their journey. This makes me reflect upon when this was us. I remember sitting there with seven new strangers and nervously making idle chitchat. We all watched in desperation as a G-Adventures bus pulled into the parking lot and offloaded its dirty passengers who had just finished their trek. They were all surprisingly smiling Рwhich I assumed was because their dreadful hike was finally over with and that they were back to civilization. One by one, they disembarked the van laughing and sharing stories with each other. One taller man was limping but other than that, they all seemed okay. As I watched them, I remembered feeling so jealous that they were done. All of their pain and suffering was over, while ours was just about to begin. I wanted so badly to be them and for all of this apprehensive nausea to be gone.

Today, I step off that very same G-Adventures bus, as a dirty passenger just finishing my trek. I look over to that group, who is staring at us with envious eyes. I smile at them, as I collect my orange North Face duffel bag that I have been living out of for the past week. I smile at them because what they don’t realize now is how badly that I wish I was them.¬†As I am about to part ways with my new friends, they are about to begin their journey with theirs. A pang of sorrow overcomes me as I realize that it is all over. I want so badly to trade places with them as they are about to embark upon the¬†greatest adventure of their life.

HOW TO … Pack The Ultimate Carry-On!

Upon returning from our latest vacation in Morocco, I feel like I finally have packing the ultimate carry-on pretty down pat! So no matter the duration of your flight, this packing list will ensure you have a comfortable trip!

1) The Carry-On

  • Pick a carry-on that suits your needs! My go-to is my Osprey Manta 25 L backpack – this bag has served me in 12 different countries over the past seven years. I brought this bag to the top of Kilimanjaro, to the Sahara desert, to the city of Paris, and many other exciting destinations! Why do I love this bag? It has convenient pockets, an optional hydration system, it’s narrow build allows it to wear and store easily, the waist belt has pockets, and lastly, it has a breathable mesh backing. I enjoy bringing a backpack as my carry-on because it allows me to have two free hands while navigating the airport (one for my coffee and one for my suitcase!).

2) Entertainment

  • Headphones
    • For watching in-flight movies or listening to music.
  • Phone Charger
    • Don’t forget this!!
  • Book
  • Notebook
    • I use a Midori travel book with changeable inserts to doodle, make notes, and journal during my trips. It is also great for storing¬†mementos that you pick up along the way, as well as exchanging contact information.¬†
  • Pen
    • Never be caught without a pen! This is essential not only for your notebook but also for filling out customs forms. Never be that person waiting in line for a pen!¬†

3) Sleeping Items

  • Eye Mask
  • Neck Pillow
  • Earplugs
  • Melatonin
    • Optional if you have trouble sleeping during longer flights.¬†

4) Comfort Items

  • Tissues
  • Hand Sanitizer
  • Wet Naps
    • Always great for sticky hands or to freshen up.¬†
  • Empty Water bottle
    • You can fill this up in the airport once you through security – a great way to avoid paying ridiculous airport prices for a bottle of water.¬†
  • Snacks
    • Granola bars, nuts, etc. – again, airport prices for these items are quite excessive.¬†
  • Gum
  • Lip balm & eye drops
    • The air is very dry in airplanes.
  • Deodorant
  • Ibuprofen / Gravol

5) Documentation

  • Passport
    • I always make a photocopy to leave it in a separate bag.
  • Flight information, hotel information, itinerary, etc.
  • Wallet

6) Optional Items

  • Irreplaceable or fragile items
    • Laptop, camera, jewelry, prescription medications, etc.
  • External battery pack
    • For charging items on the go.
  • Change of clothes
    • Either in case of lost luggage or when traveling from somewhere cold to hot – it’s nice to have a quick change of clothes.¬†
  • Sunglasses
  • Make-Up

Are there any items that you would like to add from YOUR ultimate carry-on? Feel free to add it in the comments below!

Happy Travels ūüôā¬†

 

Osprey Manta 25
The Ultimate Carry-On Guide!

Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part I)

Distance: 4 km (to the summit)
Altitude: 5,895 m
Date: Feb. 1-2, 2018

As the cold wind beats against the side of our tent, it is 11:00pm and almost time to begin our ascent. I slip into my base layers and am astounded that we are about to attempt something that nearly 50,000 people attempt annually – summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. We are told that the average summit success rate is around 65 percent; however, it greatly depends on which route you climb and its duration. We chose the Machame trail, nicknamed the Whiskey Route – despite it’s difficulty, it is one of the better routes for acclimatization.

I squeeze four layers of clothing on my bottom and five layers on my top; our guides recommend wearing six layers each due to the extreme cold but this is the best that I can do comfortably.¬†I often find wearing multiple layers very daunting but tonight I am distracted by the anticipation of what’s to come. I zip up my parka, turn on my headlamp, and head to the mess tent for our final briefing.¬†Our group sits around the table, listening to the violent whipping of the wind on our dimly-lit tent. The only¬†light available is offered from the two flashlights that are hanging from the top of the tent frame. Unsure of how long the batteries in our headlamp will last in the cold, we try to conserve them as much as possible.

Brunno speaks loudly over the deafening wind, while another guide hands us snacks for the long journey ahead. Our group seems to be nervous, but generally ready to tackle this challenge. There are a few members who have some lingering altitude sickness, masked as extreme fatigue; I hope this will not prevent them from reaching the summit.

IMG_0395
As you can tell, I am eager to get going!

As it nears 11:30pm, it’s time to go. I take a deep breath, plug in a single earbud into my right ear, and press play on my Ipod Shuffle. I have been saving its battery the entire hike for this very moment. I had anticipated that it would be a long and grueling night so I prepared a playlist specially designed to keep my moral high. “For the Girls” by The Fratellis, a Scottish indie rock band, came on first. The fun and upbeat tune was literally music to my ears. I forgot how much I missed music in the background of my day-to-day life.

We line up in single file, as we normally do. I file in behind Sieu and slide my giant mittens into the handles of my walking poles, ready to go. It seems like it was just yesterday that we were passing through those metallic gates to take our first steps on to the Machame trail and now, here we are, departing basecamp for the summit. I am finally able to let go of the apprehension that I have been carrying around this entire hike and only feel the excitement now. I feel ready to do this!

As we begin our ascent, we are followed closely by nine guides Рnearly one for each of us. I look back toward basecamp and see the glow of multiple headlamps from the other groups who are about to embark upon their final adventure as well. We continue forward, one step at a time, into the quiet darkness of the late night. It will take approximately six hours to reach Stella point and from there, an additional hour to Uhuru Peak Рthe summit of Kilimanjaro.

After an assumed hour of hiking, we take our first break. We collapse on the nearby rocks to catch our breath but the guides quickly pick us up. “Don’t lie down. Sit. Rest. Get some food and water into you quickly and we will leave in a few minutes”. The breaks are¬†short to avoid succumbing to the frigid temperatures of the mountain. As I sip on some water, I notice that a buckle on my gaiter has come undone. As I begin to¬†fumble with it, Paul comes to my aid. “Rest! Let me help you. You will need your energy to get to the top” he says. As he is finishing up, Brunno tells us that it is time to get going again.

The abyss of time eludes me; the only means of measurement is by counting the amount of breaks that we have taken – I think that we have taken four so far. Into the black night, I cannot see much beyond the light of my headlamp but I can clearly see the fatigue of our group. Everyone is taking long, slow steps up the sandy trail that¬†zigs and zags into the infinite darkness. We take one breath per step, to avoid suffocating from the thin air of the high altitude. My nose is cold but I feel too smothered if I wear anything around my face. This breathlessness makes me wonder if this is what it’s like to have an asthmatic attack. We continue to persevere forward, one step and one breath at a time.

The closer we get to Stella Point, the closer the guides seem to follow next to us. We have already lost two members of our group, who were vomiting from the affects of the altitude. If we show any signs of staggering or struggle, the guides take our backpack to¬†allow you to put the remains of our effort into summiting. Looking forward, I can see that there are only two of us left with backpacks: myself and Fabie. Fabie is the second youngest in our group and a solid mountain climber. She has literally handled the altitude like it was a walk in the park … which I guess, it technically is: Kilimanjaro National Park.

We come to a sudden stop and I look around to see what is going on. From the back of our group, I can see a few members in the front crying and hugging each other. I look past them to a large sign with the words “Mount Kilimanjaro” carved out on its wooden planks.¬†Are we at the summit already?! My concept of time is completely warped. Wait a minute … this is only Stella Point! I lean over to Sieu, “Uh … this is only Stella Point … do people realize that this is not the summit yet?!” I ask. He replies, “The guides say that if you reach Stella Point, then you’ll make it to the summit” I notice that he suddenly gets quiet. “Are you okay?” I ask, concerned that he is not feeling well from the altitude.¬†“I’m leaking”, he says.¬†Uh… what?¬†I shine the light from my headlamp up to his face to see what he’s talking about and see that his nose is running.¬† “Oh, yeah! My nose keeps running from the cold too … I just wipe it on my mitts”, I reply as I wipe my nose with my oversized mitt. “No, no. I’m … I’m leaking, Amanda.” I shine my headlamp higher so that I can see his face more clearly. Under his eyes are moist.¬†I have never seen my husband cry … ever. I’m not sure which seems more implausible: climbing to the highest peak in Africa … or seeing my husband “leak” tears of joy. Sieu had planned for over a year now that IF he could make it to the summit, he would put on his ‘dear friend’, Leonard Cohen’s song, “Hallelujah”. Emotionally, he explained that as he was crossing over the crest of the mountain and the sign came into view, his song just happened to come on by chance, creating a euphoric surge of emotions. My husband had never thought that he could make it to the summit so at this very moment, he felt like he was achieving the impossible.¬†Albert then yells out, “1 hour to the summit! We need to move on if we want to make it for the sunrise”

One by one, we continue along the thin, worn path carved through the snowy crest of the mountain top. The trail is more horizontal, providing a relaxing coast to the finish line. Paul, who is carrying Sieu’s backpack, instructs us to remove our headlamps. “Look up!”, he says. As we remove our headlamps and look up, we can clearly see the millions of star that are sprinkled throughout the galaxy above, which shine bright through the thin atmosphere of the high altitude. It’s a sight like no other that would be impossible to capture by film, so instead, I pause for a second to fully immerse myself in the moment. Absolutely stunning.

IMG_3568
The sun rising on Uhuru Peak

The Kilimanjaro sign is scarcely visible in the dim light of the early morning. As the darkness of the night begins to fade, I begin to realize that we are truly on top of the world. Below us, there is a blanket of clouds covering everything that we have left behind. It reminds me of when I would take the plane as a child; I would sit next to the window and watch as the plane pierced through the clouds during take off. I would imagine what it would be like to stand amongst those rolling hills of clouds. Today, I stand as a mortal in that heavenly abode of the divine.

As we approach the sign for the summit, I feel slightly torn between watching the beauty of the sun rising on the horizon behind us and taking in the victory of reaching this sign, which symbolizes that we are standing at the highest peak on the continent of Africa. For years, I have seen pictures of this very sign but never in my life did I think that I would have the opportunity to stand in front of it. My thoughts are interrupted by someone grabbing me around the waist! I look down and see Sieu, in a drunken, giddy state. Although, the lack of oxygen from the high altitude is getting to him, he is also exhilarated that we have actually made it to the summit. Together.

IMG_3565
Uhuru Peak – the summit of Kilimanjaro

 

To Be Continued in…
Conquering Kilimanjaro (Day 6: Summit Night, part 2)