Several people have asked me, including my taxi driver, Moses just now, why Africa, why Kilimanjaro? Since they asked in a way that suggests they want a deeper answer, I tried to come up with one.
I wasn’t sure myself at first, but now I can find a few reasons. Among them are another mountain half a lifetime ago, my great-grandmother’s passport, and a desire to be uncomfortable.
I was a few weeks shy of 22 when I arrived in Japan for my first job after college. Plagued by depression and low self-confidence, I had barely managed to graduate and get a job. I had begun to see myself as always destined to screw up and fall short.
I clung to the few bright spots.When a few teachers put kind comments on a few essays, it was enough to make me want to get better at writing and eventually, teaching, not necessarily because I felt called, but just that it was the one subject I didn’t screw up in.
I changed my major from astrophysics to English, which led to auditioning for The Merchant of Venice and somehow landing the role of Shylock. It was a rare success and my first experience throwing myself that intensely into something. By the end, I was speaking in iambic pentameter half the time without knowing it. The applause, the good reviews, and an offer from a professional company were a balm for my fragile ego.
Other bright spots had been not just unplanned but completely accidental. One took place 11 stories up. After a trip to the beach, about 19 of my college friends and I crammed in the elevator to return to our rooms. We were sweaty and tired and packed into an elevator car with a maximum capacity of 10. It ground to a halt between the 11th and 12th floors. The stronger guys pried open the inner door and because I was skinny I was able to squeeze through the gap and onto the roof. From there I climbed up the ladder on the shaft wall and somehow got the latch open. While I was up there, alone and looking down 100 feet, I remember feeling relaxed and free of anxiety for the first time in years.
It was a lovely sensation, one I wasn’t expecting to feel while dangling from the side of an elevator shaft by one hand while reaching for the latch. I also remember that the instant I opened it and people saw me, I started acting scared, as though I was obliged to.
I think many of the times we are afraid, we might be half-pretending. Why? To play a role that is convenient for ourselves and others. I just realized now that I never had stage fright while playing Shylock, either. As long as I was acting, I could give myself permission to act like a guy who doesn’t get stage fright.
I got yet another accidental encounter with self-confidence at 2:30 AM on Christmas Eve my senior year. I was biking from the restaurant where I worked and was robbed at gunpoint by four young men. Maybe because it was surreal, I didn’t have time to feel afraid. Instead, I talked to them throughout and even teased them and in the end, they came back, returned my stuff, said sorry, and we ended up wishing each other Merry Christmas.
Those glimpses of another me were haunting. I liked that Vikram better and I wanted him back and I didn’t want to wait for another chance encounter. So just as I was settling into my new apartment in Kimitsu, Japan, I decided to spend my birthday at the top of Mt. Fuji. With almost no preparation, not even a heavy jacket, I climbed it in $20 sneakers and saw the most beautiful sunrise I’ve yet seen.
So that’s where the idea of spending my birthday on a mountaintop came from. I wanted that feeling back, both the altitude and the attitude. I thought briefly of going to Paris, one of my favorite cities, but I realized I can’t do Paris alone. It wouldn’t feel right without 15 students tagging along, listening to me babble about Impressionism and the French Resistance and the earth-shaking importance of writing down the specific, concrete details of each place and moment.
Recently, my mother showed me my great-grandmother’s passport, issued in 1958, when she was 64. Bapukka, as we called her, was remarkable in more ways than I can list here. Having no formal education after the age of 14, she spoke several languages and could recite the Bhagavad Gita and Sermon on the Mount from memory. Mahatma Gandhi once wrote about her, when he met her and her father, Justice Sir T. Sadasiva Iyer of the Madras High Court. Gandhiji had always wanted to memorize the Gita and was impressed by this woman who had done it.
She was in some ways an unprecedented woman. A life-long traveller, she decided in her 60s to go around the world with her best friend, leaving her husband at home. Few Indian women, if any, had done this. Her passport lists Kabul, Moscow, Stockholm, as well as Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Burma. The page with her photo, dressed in a traditional silk nine-yard sari, lists her name, T.S. Parvathi, and below it a space labeled, “ACCOMPANIED BY HIS WIFE:”. That space is blank.
Even the Indian government was not prepared for an Indian woman traveling on her own passport, and not as her husband’s luggage. That’s what I mean by unprecedented. I’m not sure if I’ll visit every place she did 58 years ago. But it would be fun to try.
Finally, I chose Africa and a difficult but possibly achievable climb because I fear being comfortable. After some struggling years, I have a good job and a life I could quite easily settle into. The thought of doing that scares me more than most things.
I suppose approaching 50 and what we have been programmed to think 50 means is part of it. I see how easily I could confuse sore muscles or fatigue as a sign of age. How easily I could give up on things I want to do because I feel pressured (from within or without) to act my age. But I’ve seen people settle into comfortable, unobjectionable routines at all ages. And I’ve seen people who never settle. I’ve seen their passports.
So I picked a continent I haven’t been to, a language I barely know, and a physical and mental challenge I may fail at. I won’t mind if I fail, but the only way to know for sure to get too close for comfort, and know that I’m okay with failing, but not okay with not trying. I want to know that I’m that kind of person.
In Japan there’s a saying, “There are two kinds of fools. The one who has seen Fujisan and never climbed it. And the one who climbs it twice.” It’s a lesson in not dwelling on the past but gratefully accepting whatever mountain you get to climb here and now.
I’m writing this at 41,000 feet above Lake Turkana, which is drying up due to global warming. I have just flown over the ongoing war in South Sudan. And as I seek the joy of being uncomfortable I thank God for the comfort of my friends, family, and the unexpected serene confidence, much like what I felt atop that elevator decades ago, that I’ve gained from experiences planned and unplanned. I realize now that those accidents were visitations of grace.