It’s been awhile since I’ve traveled internationally – but more than that – it’s been 6+ years since I traveled somewhere new internationally. I forgot how fun it is to have a completely new experience. To blend nerves and discovery together and not be totally sure it’ll work.
I slept most of the way to Amsterdam; a good plan on an 8-hour flight that left Chicago at 4pm. We descended through the misty, Seattle-esque clouds around 7am local time and I was looking forward to hanging out in a lounge for the 4-hour layover, using them sweet lil credit card perks, only to find out it was closed. Boooooooooo! C’mon capitalism! Do your girl a solid! Instead I snagged an iced coffee (I mean, it was Seattle weather), watched some Ted Lasso and did a 10-minute meditation in a quiet nook of the terminal.
Waiting to board the AMS > JRO leg, I saw so many people at the gate who looked like me – daypack, hiking boots, REI-ish layers – and had that same feeling: what are y’all doing on my special adventure?! On one hand I’m aware many, many people go to Kilimanjaro (and Tanzania, the Serengeti, etc.) in general and on the other hand it felt odd to have spent 2 years overall preparing for this thing so incredibly solo (being isolated in a pandemic, living/working out alone, etc. for the past year and a half) but being surrounded by other people realizing their dream ON THE SAME DAY AS ME. I may be your only friend/family/person to climb Kilimanjaro but trust me; there’s literally hundreds of us at any given time.
After an easy, uneventful 8-hour leg south to JRO, we arrived around 9pm local time. Seated in row 43 of 45, it took me awhile to get off the plane. I almost vibrated with palpable excitement, looking out the window at the bright letters KILIMANJARO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT. We rushed outside, groaning with relief in stretching our legs…to get into line. A huge line. A cozy, 75 degree darkness enveloped us, sandwiched between the outer walls of the airport and the massive KLM jetliner we’d evacuated, bottlenecking to be paperwork-checked.
- Get in 300+ person line and slowly get to the front of the pack.
- Get waved over to one of 10 people checking paperwork, temperatures and IDs.
- Paperwork approved, temp check ok – go stand in a different line to pay the $10 COVID test fee – with a credit card machine that is out of receipt paper so they’re handwriting/stamping all receipts, taking forever
- Go inside, get pretty thorough COVID rapid test up the schnozz
- Booty barely touching the waiting area seat when they loudly call your FULL GROWN FIRSTNAME MIDDLENAME LASTNAME and hand me the (thankfully) Negative results
- Get in different line to get a visa, fill out paperwork, scan all ya fingerprints, you’re Jason Bourne now
- Pay $100 for the privilege of the finger scanning
- Go to a different window to get a receipt for paying $100 for the Bourne finger scan
- Go get your bags from the floor (they’ve been nicely pulled from the carousel and set in a line with the other hundred bags, watched over by airport staff)
***It’s been 2 hours since you landed***
- Bathroom break
- Put all bags (including carry on) back through another X-ray machine so you can leave. X-ray attendant is halfheartedly scrolling on their phone.
- Finally emerge out into the night, where 50 Tanzanian men are all holding signs with various safari company names on them in varying fonts and font sizes
Honestly? I just started scanning left to right. I was the only person to walk out the door at that moment, so they’re all just watching me stand there, eyeballs glazed over. I started at my 9 o’clock and was going clockwise through all the names, standing in one spot like a spooked baby horse when – suddenly – out of nowhere this guy pops through the ring of men, saying “Mountain Madness?”
“YES” I gratefully breathed as he and another guy, fully masked, took my bags and led me past the other guide companies, closer to the parking lot. “I’m Ben” and “I’m Geoffrey,” they added, as I felt my shoulders finally droop below my ears. Someone else was in charge now. I could rest. There was no more big, solo decisions to make, things to coordinate, etc. It was a relief to have someone else take the wheel.
I think that was one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip and I didn’t fully realize it until I got back home. There’s only a few people that I’ve talked to about it that really get this, and they’re also single women. Its not unique to us but there’s a unique perspective to it. It’s exhausting to have to do all the things alone. Not just the tasks of living (although that’s a lot) but also the decision-making, the weighing of options, the research, etc. When you’re in a couple (or family) you can take turns wearing those hats, even if one of you does it most of the time, it’s rarely all of the time for all of the things.
You have to get up for work no one is going to wake you up so set your alarm ok it’s time get up and decide what to wear I’m hungry but what are you gonna eat you should use that cookbook that mom got you or maybe just get on google and type in the ingredients you have and see what looks good do not open Grubhub you’ll never cook and those bell peppers are 84 years old in the drawer you gotta do it today or they’re going to rot on you ok I found 2 recipes for stuffed peppers well when are you going to cook it you just started another episode of L&O SVU ok but are you going to eat it like a wolf out of the pot because why get another plate dirty it’s just you and you’ll have to wash that dish oh you’ve just used the same 3 dishes for the last week that’s ok who’s gonna know oh lord that trash has gotta go out I’ve pushed it down too long gotta take the rent check to the post box on the corner tomorrow or it’ll be late I also gotta look at flight times so Mom knows when I’m coming home for the holidays but need to check and be sure it doesn’t conflict with work or theater schedule are my plants dying? when’s the last time they were watered – well – if I didn’t do it then no one did it…etc. etc. etc.
I know there’s beauty in the freedom to make my own choices and it’s a privilege to have the financial flexibility to live alone. Most of the time I’m aware and grateful for it but sometimes it catches up to you – that mental & emotional labor – and the fact that you can’t take all the hats off. The Beret of Personal Responsibility is glued on, y’all.
Standing in the black-velvet Tanzanian night outside the airport, there was a palpable, physical (and mental and emotional) sigh, listening to the bugs softly chirp, a light breeze soothing my almost 24-hours of travel soul. Someone. else. was. in. charge. I took a step away, pulled down my mask and gazed up at the star-flecked sky, gulping in fresh air and rubbing the mask lines imprinted on my scalp. I could rest now. I’d done everything right – I’d trained, I’d prepared, I’d executed, I’d been in the right places at the right times with the right paperwork and my reward was finally here – someone else in control. Glorious.
We tossed our duffels and bags in a khaki-colored Toyota Land Cruiser and started the 90-minute drive out to Arusha National Park and Itikoni private camp, where Mountain Madness has taken clients for decades. It was just after midnight, but to J (our other hiker) and I it was about 4-5pm to our stateside origin bodies. With our whole car vaccinated (and J and I very freshly PCR tested (in the states pre-flight) and rapid tested (about 1 hour ago in the KIA airport) negative for COVID), we took off our masks and happily chattered away. I didn’t even know J’s name before I left the country yesterday and was about to spend a week+ on a mountain with him and the guides, so I was curious.
We turn off the main road into Arusha National Park and put the Land Cruiser into 4-wheel drive for the rugged, teeth-jostling final 30 minutes of the trail. It was too dark to take any photos but we leaned forward, hopeful we’d see a critter or two illuminated in the hazy lights of the car, and were rewarded with half-glimpses of a giraffe and a cape buffalo just off the road. Pulling into Itikoni just shy of 2am, we were taken to the mess tent and introduced to Po, who had made a full meal for us.
Y’all, I know my brain was like ‘hey girl, it’s only 6pm-ish’ but also, after 24 hours of travel I was ready to big sleep. And here an incredibly nice crew made us a full multi-course meal – tangy, brightly-colored salad, freshly sliced steak, even a hand-crafted dessert – and were smiling, waiting for us to eat. They offered me a beer or a glass of wine but I knew I’d be out before we hit ‘asante’ if I did. When my eyelids were heavy and belly full, Ben, Geoffrey and our armed camp ranger, Tony, walked us to our spacious private tents and after a brief tour (how to use the toilet, wash my face, take a shower, and to not to leave the tent while it was dark (there was an emergency whistle if I felt unsafe!)), I said goodnight, zipped the inner and outer tent door and crawled into bed just before 3am, pulled up my sleep mask, squished in my earplugs and slept a deep, dreamless, thankful sleep.
[Sidebar pro-tip if you’re going to KIA in the next year-ish: You can pre-pay your COVID test and you can pre-file/get your Tanzania visa online but I didn’t pre-do either and still beat the other travel/hiker in our group out of the airport by 20+ minutes. Normally I would have pre-done both but, shrug, six of one and a half-dozen of the other, you know?]
Next Up: Itikoni Camp & Arusha National Park (Days 2-3)
- Baboon Danny Ocean
- Swahili 101
- We get up close and personal with why our camp ranger carries a bolt action rifle