When I stop to think about the journeys I have been making around the world for a very long time now, sometimes I feel that the most worrying problems did not involve borders and frontiers, practical difficulties and threats, so much as a frequently recurring uncertainty about the form, quality and course of an encounter with Others, with the other people whom I would come across somewhere along the way, because I knew that a lot, sometimes everything, would depend on it. Each encounter of this kind was an unknown quantity -- how would it go? How would it develop? What would be the conclusion?
That comes from a thoughtful little book I've been dipping into on this trip, called The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski. ("Very cerebral," pronounced the guy briefing us about the Kili trek today, a little dubiously, after asking me what I was reading).
This observation kind of knits together what I do in Uganda and what I seem to be doing here in tourist-oriented Kilimanjaro. This hotel is a lovely little enclave, gardens, light, flowering trees, flasks of drinkable water everywhere. Run by a Brit who seems to know what he's doing. But when I dropped my key off to go for a walk earlier today, the worried desk clerks told me I shouldn't go without a guide. Thinking that was ridiculous, I asked why. "People will disturb you," they said.
I know that in central africa "disturb" can mean everything from a pesky mosquito to rebels who want to "disturb" the government, so there's a big slide of possible meaning there. But certain that this isn't downtown Nairobi, but rural Kilimanjaro, I decided I could handle the disturbances. And sure enough, as soon as I walked down the hotel's drive, I was joined by a man with the red eyes that signify long term malnourishment, but a flourish in speaking. Wanted to give me a tour, protect me, etc.
I realized how much Kapuscinski's comment plays out in every encounter, how there is a decision to be made to construct men like this as Other Who Will Disturb or Inhabitant of the same system. I walked beside him, answered his questions easily, was firm about wanting a walk on my own. Experienced a slight quickening of the breath that comes along with wondering if he really is Other, someone who would steal my small bag (that foolishly had everything in it -- I'm too naive about that). Tried to let his sameness settle over me, sameness as the people I encounter in Kasese. Wished him well, left him behind.
I walked further down the road, contemplating the difference in my own breathing in a place like kasese where I find a sliver of identity and belonging, can locate myself even among the people whose worlds are so different than mine, even with all of the undercurrents of obvious difference, unease at the privilege where we get waved through a police checkpoint when africans are held back. Wondering if I was actually being foolish to go on, or foolish to worry about it.
As I walked, I heard singing, and realized that it was sunday. Around the next curve, I saw a Swahili sign that I could make out as a Catholic church. Mass was going on, and without thinking about it, I went in.
Very much Other in this packed church, the only mzungu, the only one in trekking pants, sandals, tank top and a ridiculous chartreuse baseball cap featuring the Vancouver olympics that I had to buy at pearson when I realized I didn't have a hat. But I sat in a back pew, and tried to immerse myself in the echoes of familiarity of the patterns of a mass conducted in swahili, with african flourishes. It was unsettlingly comfortable and comforting, for this longtime atheist. Exchanged handshakes of peace, and even, for the first time in 25 years, went to communion, feeling simultaneously guilty at masquerading as one-of, and wanting to locate myself not as gawking observer, but someone with some kind of credibility for being there. A complicated little dance, but in the forced quiet, also calming. Tried to figure out what on earth was happening when, after communion, people pulled garlands (some like leis, some like xmas tinsel) out of their bags and went up and put them around one woman's neck. (Someone at the hotel, who'd seen me there, told me later that they were celebrating 25 years of her being Devoted to Mary, some kind of lay nun. I was disappointed -- I thought I'd stumbled across a novel Tanzanian Catholic pre-xmas ritual).
In one of the Tapestry episodes I was listening to earlier in the week, a neuroscientist was talking about how the brain is reshaped by experience, and how there is evidence to suggest that engaging in prayer and meditation actually smooths out brain waves. (That's a very unscientific translation of what she actually said). I realized that I needed that smoothing out today, the quiet, and the joy of the singing of the mostly female congregation. The upcoming trek is fairly daunting -- the highest non-technical climb that it's possible to do, the unknowns of altitude and the almost certain sickness, the unknowns of how my body will fare given the beating it's taken in Uganda and my overall lesser fitness. There are a lot of warnings that only about a third of the people who do this route actually summit. But wanting to do this, and finding in this space in the church the reminders of times I've walked or run or perservered through equivalent moments, particularly the surreal zone of pain in the last stretch of running Boston.
I wrote when I first arrived in Uganda about my sense of otherness being about pace. I think what Africa does for me is to remind me that slower is possible, can fit me. I have never been easy with that, whether it's actual physical pace or overall patience, space given to the others in my life, moments of pause before reacting to things. Here, I have more moments of pause, I find, more ability to observe my responses. It's travelling solo, and it's having to fit to a group, and it's Africa and what it requires.
The trip leader who briefed us today, and my driver last night, reiterated the Swahili phrase pole pole (pronounced po-lay po-lay), which means very very slow. It's a stretch for me to slow my pace down when I'm walking, when I'm doing anything -- and it's maybe the best thing I could encounter here to take back with me.
Tomorrow, we start climbing; back on Friday. In between, probably the hardest 6 hours of my life, up a steep frozen mountain in the middle of the night. Send me good vibes for Uhuru, the top of africa.