An experience beyond mountain climbing in Tanzania

HOWARD NEIGHBORS

March 03, 2006|By JANET GILBERT

The e-mail arrived with 50 others, but it grabbed my attention with its subject line: "1 friend $1."

A neighbor, Susan Duff, was off to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. In researching the area, she found the Amani Children's Home, an orphanage (www.amanikids.org). Her e-mail requested that I send her one dollar, no more - and that I forward her e-mail to one friend.

Meanwhile, Duff, who lives in Woodstock, had routed her e-mail to others going on the journey. One, Olivia Darden, lives in Dayton. She immediately replied, asking if she could alter the message to send to her friends.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in Friday's Howard County section of The Sun gave an incorrect name for the granddaughter of Olivia Darden. The granddaughter's name is Rachel Hannah Johnson.
The Sun regrets the errors.

"Go for it!" said Duff, 50.

"Olivia must have had a higher caliber of friend," says Duff, joking. "She upped the amount to $6 per friend and had each send it on to six friends."

Here, then, is the story of two neighbors who went to Tanzania, Africa, and returned with an experience beyond mountain climbing.

`Something ... exciting'

"During my 58th birthday party, we somehow got on the subject of my 60th being two years off," said Darden. "I wanted to do something memorable, exciting." Her son suggested she climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Some time later, she read an article on a travel company for women, and went on the Internet (www.adventuresingoodcom pany.com) to see if there was a trip around the time of her birthday, Jan. 29. A Kilimanjaro trip was scheduled for Feb. 4-19, 2006.

"That was a sign!" Darden said.

Darden committed. To get in shape, she began training in a "boot camp" program and hiking regularly with her son, son-in-law and grandchildren.

One week before her departure, Darden and family went roller-skating. An accidental bump at the rink caused Darden to fall and break her left wrist. Because Darden is left-handed, she brought her trekking pole to her orthopedist so he would create a splint that would allow her to grip the pole. She was determined to put all that training to the test.

Duff, on the other hand, acknowledges that she "completely underrated the difficulty of the climb." Duff prepared by hiking weekly with a friend she met on one of her previous trips. Still, there is a big difference between the hilly areas of Patapsco Valley State Park and the Great Barranco Wall section of Kilimanjaro. And, there's the drain of the altitude on stamina: Kilimanjaro's Machame Gate is at about 6,000 feet, and its summit, Uhuru Peak, is at 19,340 feet.

Duff was overwhelmed by her first view of Kilimanjaro. "What am I doing here?" she wondered.

There are two greetings in Swahili: Jambo, which seems to be a joyful "hello;" and Pole, pole, which has a "no hurry" attitude, meaning "slow, slow." Nothing is really on a tight schedule in Tanzania - except for the ascent to Kili's summit, which must be done between midnight and sunrise, so climbers can descend safely in daylight.

Darden did not feel well the day before the scheduled trek. Seven years ago, she donated a kidney to her husband, and kidneys work harder at high altitudes. Still, she left at midnight with the group. Soon, the air became too thin; her breathing too labored. She and a 65-year-old climber with her had to turn back, but not before they reached a point higher than 16,000 feet.

"We felt it was our personal summit," Darden said.

Duff continued, but at one point was counseled to turn back. She said she prayed. "Suddenly," Duff said, "there was this porter named Emmanuel by my side. I asked him if he thought I could make it. He said, `Yes.'"

"I believed him," said Duff.

Duff started following Emmanuel, counting steps - up to 1,000, she thinks, but she can't be sure; she felt mentally foggy and lost blocks of time. But she vividly remembers the amazing glacial vistas when she reached Uhuru Peak, the highest point on Kilimanjaro.

Spiritual moments

Duff and Darden had several spiritual moments on the climb. In an e-mail, Duff writes: "I stop to catch my breath and look around, and am caught off-guard by the absolute beauty of my surroundings. I cry a little, take a photo, hope to remember this moment for the rest of my life, and move on."

Darden tells of a moment when " ... the clouds opened like a curtain, and the mountaintop was revealed like a cathedral. I stood in awe."

Duff and Darden speak most poignantly, however, of their encounters with the local people. On a day trip to the Shira Tumaini Women's Project, they worked alongside women eking out a living preparing and packaging spices.

"We actually helped peel and mash the garlic," said Darden. When asked if the smell permeated their clothes, Darden laughs. "Let me tell you," she says, "it wasn't any worse than the smells coming off that mountain after five days without a shower!"

Duff had never been to Africa and found herself frequently distressed by the Tanzanian's living conditions. This was Darden's fourth trip to Africa; after her first, she was moved to create a not-for-profit group to help African children, called Child Care 2020.

Darden and Duff found common ground not only on the mountain, but in their desire to help.

At the end of the climb, their group convened at the Kilimanjaro Porters' Assistance Project, an association formed to protect the historically underpaid and mistreated porters.

Because Duff had sent an e-mail to the Amani Children's Home, a representative was aware of the group's itinerary and showed up at the office. Duff and Darden arranged to have the $440 and $725 they had collected respectively sent to the home through the assistant group leader from Adventures in Good Company.

The representative remarked that it was the first time the home had received such a large gift through the fundraising efforts of individuals.

To be sure, Darden and Duff have made their families proud with their mountain climbing. On another level, they represent the best in all of us, when we manage to ascend to a higher plane by connecting with the world's children.

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