iSURF week 7: A Life above the Clouds

When I dubbed last week (with my Zanzibar trip and a successful meeting with my principle investigator) as the best week ever, I might have spoke too soon. Alternatively, the best case scenario is that I’m having consecutive best weeks ever…let’s run with that.

 

The most epic week of my whole summer internship (thus far) and I didn’t even go to work once. Very analogous to those learning moments outside of the classroom – that is what the summer is for after all, right?

 

This summer, I’m serving as a research intern in clinical trials revolving around maternal health and nutrition. It’s my first time handling clinical trials and I’m definitely learning my fair share of the triumphs as well as the difficulties of protocol vs. practice. Did I mention I’m working in Africa? Yep, I’ve landed the dream “job” at age 21 by participating in the Global Health Institute’s international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program.

 

Since iSURF is a fan of the buddy system and sends at least 2 students per destination abroad, I have a summer program partner, Leanna, and although we work on different projects and in different areas of the city, we try to align our African travel plans – because we too are fans of the buddy system. A bit of planning and flexibility allows students abroad to exploit their summer destinations. One of Leanna’s best friends and blockmates (a group of up to 8 friends that you tell the college you’re obsessed with during the spring semester of your freshman year to ensure that your group is placed together in the same upperclassman house for the remaining three years of undergrad) is pursuing research for her senior thesis in East Africa. They had roughly planned to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, together this summer. When her plans fell through, Leanna was still determined to hike it and I was pretty much indifferently down for the ride. Let’s keep in mind that I’ve never been camping for more than one night and for whatever reason, the sound of 6 days didn’t alarm me.

A view of Kilimanjaro from our bus ride. We were entranced about how the peak just pops above the clouds!

Leanna spearheaded planning the entire Mt. Kilimanjaro hike. Many Harvard students volunteer with SIC, Support for International Change, and she had heard of a partnership between SIC and a hiking company. We rode SIC’s coattails for their student discounts and had semi-strategically/semi-luckily planned our 6 day hike up Mt. Kilimanjaro to begin one day before the federal government of Tanzania imposes a hefty, high-season tourist tax.

I would have done a lot to avoid the taxes – but it would have been worth it regardless! Just look at this view from the rainforest, near the base of the mountain!

Everything seemed to be going our way! We bought bus tickets for a 12 hour ride to the base of the mountain and although our tickets mistakenly noted the wrong day, we didn’t have a problem boarding! The bus seats reclined and the Bongo-flavor music was all very conducive to sleeping. When slumber wasn’t on our side, we were easily amused by the passing of the beautiful green scenery as well as what we suspected to be a baobab tree forest!

 

Wiped out from the long bus ride, we turned in early despite the Friday night ambiance.

 

Saturday began with a hefty breakfast along with an introduction to our head guide named Kombe who visited us at our hostel to help us with our rental gear as well as give us a brief overview of our imminent week of hiking. After an initial blood oxygen level and pulse check, we bid farewell, knowing that the next time we met, we would be starting our ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Leanna and I spent the rest of Saturday food-touring the small town of Arusha and met up with a friend we made through mutual friends at Zanzibar last week. Her name was Lauren and although she was based in Arusha, she had yet to explore an arts and crafts center called Cultural Heritage.

Cultural Heritage was a huge arts center that included the largest collection of Tanzanite gems. Our eyes sparkled just as much as the gems as we stared, but we quickly made our way to the large art gallery next door.

A view from inside the art gallery

The gallery was fantastic! From architecture to content, the building fitted with stained glass window and spiraled around an impressive showcase boasting the most prominent aspects of African culture, from tribes to animals. There were plaques and framed letters of US presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton visits; too bad Obama wasn’t planning on coming to the Cultural Heritage center during his POTUS visit!

While roaming the town, we stumbled upon a library and nervously/curiously entered. To our surprise and shock, the library was absolutely crowded both on the basement and ground floor … on a beautiful Saturday afternoon!

Obligatory creeper pictures to highlight some studious Tanzanians!

As the adventurous young adults Leanna and I strive to be, we also called Saturday an early night in an attempt to relish our last night in a bed under a roof for the upcoming week. There were no regrets about our decisions Sunday morning when we were picked up by our hiking company and started making the short drive to the starting gate of the Machame route where we’d be spending the next 6 days.

Get it?! … X for X-treme! :)
At the starting gate – after registration and right before beginning!

At the entrance, we met our entourage – or as we endearingly nicknamed our crew: mantourage – which consisted of 2 guides, a chef, a waiter, a toilet-master, and 6 porters. 11 men to take care of 2 girls for 6 days. Yeah, the numbers seemed about right.

In too deep to turn back now…

Leanna has camping experience and she was able to call our adventure the most luxurious camping she’s ever done. I, on the other hand, during this camping trip, gathered very high standards for what camping should be like; the disclaimer here being that our 6 day Mt. Kilimanjaro hike was enough camping for my lifetime. (I’ll probably avoid camping again at all costs, but make sure everybody knows about that one time I hiked to Africa’s rooftop in 6 days.) We were essentially waited on hand and foot: everyone in our mantourage (except for our guides) would race up and down the mountain much faster in order to have our campsite set up upon arrival. Leanna and I were woken up daily to a hot beverage delivered to our sleeping bags and there was even “warm water for washing” in buckets right outside our sleeping tent twice a day. There was no doubt we ate better on Mt. Kilimanjaro than in lower elevations when we were responsible for feeding ourselves.

 

Feeling like CHAMPS after Day 1 of hiking through the rainforest.

Throughout our 6 day route, we made our way up to the nearly 6000 meter peak, Uhuru Point. The most pleasant surprise was reaching the summit on July 4th. I think it’s fair that students always get a burst of patriotism when abroad. Leanna and I may not have had an American flag to boast on Africa’s rooftop, but when we weren’t desperately trying to breathe oxygen into our lungs, we were radiating American vibes as best we could. Most of the hikers we ran into were American and reaching the summit not only felt like an escape from Africa, but also an escape from the real world.

…or maybe I was just feeling like there was some out-of-body experience happening because I was majorly oxygen deprived. I’m talking about a blood oxygen level hovering around 60%. This is when studying neurobiology serves as a disadvantage because I start listing all the neurons and organs that have most likely already suffocated to their demise. I wasn’t really aware of (or maybe I was denying) the severity of the situation. All I knew was that I was beyond super sleepy (on the verge of losing consciousness?) and very nauseous. I could n o t come to terms with not reaching the summit, especially after enduring so much dirt everywhere for so many days. I thankfully reached the top of the mountain with the hand-holding of my guide and raced down quickly after to chase some oxygen. Okay, so maybe Harvard kids are a little intense, but at least we’re not just intense about academics…?

Stella Point – not quite the summit, but an hour away – I wish someone had warned me about all this trickery!! Hey Tanzania, let’s not put congratulatory signs at non-summit points. Thanks.

Finally at Uhuru Point – Africa’s rooftop. Severely oxygen deprived & nauseous. Worth it? ABSOLUTELY.

 

It’s insane how many ecosystems you pass while hiking 6000 meters! We went through rainforests, deserts, heathers and moors! Mid-way through Day 2 of hiking, we were already above the clouds.

We’re breathing in a cloud!!!!!

The views of fluffy beds of clouds beneath us were priceless. Clouds would often roll right through our hiking trails and provide a movie set-like backdrop; I’d have to cue Leanna here to mention all the Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones references I didn’t understand…

 

The entire week of hiking was not as physically rigorous as I thought it would entail – except for summit day of course. On summit day, you start hiking at midnight, trying to reach the peak around sunrise. This means you get very little sleep and it’s FREEZING. The wind was mercilessly whipping my face regardless of the direction I was facing.

Our guides called this “Kilimanjaro Cocaine.” Let’s just say this definitely pushed me up the mountain.

I countered this by taking gulps of straight up glucose provided by my guides. Yet, This isn’t to say the the 6 day adventure wasn’t exhausting, but I’m confident that most people could handle the level of hiking difficulty! In my opinion, Mt. Kilimanjaro is less of a physical battle and more of a biological battle. You struggle with things out of your control – the two main things being the cold and the altitude. With four pairs of pants on, Leanna and I were equipped to fight the cold (although our painfully freezing fingers and toes wailed in disagreement – I was just happy I could still feel pain rather than having my extremities go numb!!). However, I struggled a ton on summit day with altitude sickness and experienced my first oxygen mask…an overload of scary excitement! University Health Services, UHS, and abroad programs partner up before students go abroad to ensure students have all their necessary vaccinations as well as appropriate medications (i.e. altitude/diarrhea pills). With their medical support, we were prepared as well as we could be for the hike but mountain conditions are so unpredictable!

 

I still think my most physically challenging quest was hiking the Colca Canyon in Peru last summer after my Summer Internship Program (SIP) with the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS), but summit day of Mt. Kilimanjaro was by far my most biologically challenging adventure. Is it ironic that I have Harvard to thank for an overwhelming majority of my blissful challenges whether that be academic, social, physical, and biological? College has definitely been a transformative and fulfilling experience if I’ve ever had one.

 

Overall, the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro was a super scary experience as it was happening and I’m lucky to say that I have no regrets. Reaching Africa’s rooftop was an experience unlike any other and I’m confident that this is a true statement I can continue to make throughout my life. It was my very first time doing anything of this kind – camping?? extreme mountain hiking?? Crazy.

You may have noticed that this blog sort of jumps all over the place. This can be explained by 1) my tendency to ramble, 2) all of my EMOTIONS – I’m so proud and happy for myself, for conquering something I didn’t even know was on my bucket list; but I’m also still debating whether or not it was stupid of me for doing something that brought me so close to kicking the bucket, and/or 3) the overload of events over the course of a single week that I’m still trying to process – I hiked ~19,500 feet, WHAT?!

Matters didn’t even really slow down off the mountain! We had scheduled one more day in the small town of Moshi which lies at the base of the mountain before returning to our internships. Plans were looking pretty grim as it seemed as if Leanna’s throat infection evolved into bronchitis during our hike. After consulting with a physician at the closest public hospital, Leanna chose to spend the day indoors. However, I met some New Zealand travelers in our hostel and ventured out with them to the nearby waterfalls and other attractions.

At the Moshi waterfalls with some New Zealand friends I picked up along the way

A week of pure nature without any responsibilities or distractions – amazing. I highly recommend it. But I have to admit it was really nice returning to civilization and being able to communicate with my family and friends regularly. And if we’re on the confession train here, I also hated returning to flooded inboxes and the guilt-driven impulse to reply immediately. Technology is such a double edged sword/catch 22. I have some really hefty travel plans for after my internship ends so we’ll have to wait and see how technology serves me then. Just 2 more weeks until my internship is over, but this in no way reflects that the summer is almost over!

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2 comments

  1. Mike Glover’s avatar

    What a wonderful and interesting story! More over, what a great accomplishment in your life. You can always look back on this and know it was something only a handful of people ever get to do.

    I am not so sure about the “Kilimanjaro Cocaine”, must have tasted horrible, but I’m sure it helped!

    You’re an inspiration Jeanie!

  2. lara scott’s avatar

    I can see that you really have the great moment in your life. I can also see that it was a very productive week for you. Just enjoy your life. You deserve it.

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