Friday, September 5, 2014

"I'm coming home, tell the world I'm coming home..."

Today marks one week since my earlier-than-anticipated homecoming to the States, after having left home over two years ago for Peace Corps.  As you might imagine, it’s quite an experience re-integrating into my home culture and observing how people and things operate, while still trying to retain some of what I learned in rural South Africa since 2012.

The purpose of this post is to sort of walk you through my thought process these past seven days and give you an idea of how I’m sorting through some of the most striking observations.

In no particular order, I’ll start with size.  And how big things seem to be are.  I'm not just talking cars, which was one of the first things I noticed; maybe re-noticed, because they've always been big here.  (Do you need a Hummer driving down the Hutchinson Parkway?  Probably not.)  But it's everything from shopping carts in stores, to the proportions of people's bodies (lots of whom are cruising down aisles on scooters with baskets in the front so they can do their grocery shopping from a seated position), to the rush that people seem to be in to get through a robot (traffic light in American speak) that they would otherwise wait a minute or two at before they're allowed to carry on their way.

I learned a new sense of patience during my PC service.  Not to say that I was especially impatient before, but if you can't get used to sitting in a hot Quantum taxi at the Teacher's Center rank in Durban for 3 hours waiting for a handful of passengers to arrive and decide they want to go to the same place you do (and you can only go when the taxi is full), then making it through two years would be a serious struggle.  I've been doing pretty alright so far, and hope to keep it going strong.

Like most Americans, my family has a television.  Actually we have two, but the second one isn't used all that much.  I have never consciously spent so much time away from the TV as I have since last Friday, honestly because I'm intimidated by it.  I watched the first season of The Newsroom while in South Africa and really loved it, so I'm working on watching Season Two with my parents.  In the few moments it takes to scroll down the list of Tivo'ed programs to get to the episodes I wanted, there was a commercial on the real time channel playing in the background talking about how you can set your device to record shows it thinks you would like in addition to what it's already scheduled to record for you.  As if however many countless shows we as Americans watch and then re-watch and fast forward through commercials of to get to the next episode isn't quite enough.  A machine can tell you more things to watch that you might like.  Please.  Go read a book.

In the usual trips to the store or to buy Dad's newspapers, I'll run into someone that I know or that knows the family.  They greet me, ask about Peace Corps, I tell them I was in South Africa, and then either a blank stare comes over their face or they make a very generalized comment about Africa as a whole.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this was the case with everyone that I talked with, but at least 50% didn't really seem to have a clue about where geographically I spent my past two years.  As a culture, we have what seems like very little concept of a lot of the rest of the world.  I'm really not trying to make a blanket statement here, this is just from personal experience.  Maybe it's because I really like/ am pretty decent at geography and love maps.  I was just a little taken aback.

I returned home to pretty much a disaster of a room, which only got worse as I unpacked each of my bags.  My closet is full.  My dresser drawers are full.  And I have two laundry baskets of clothes that don't yet have a spot to call home.  I'm stuck asking myself how I have accumulated so much stuff.  Why do I need dozens of sweaters or long-sleeved shirts or half a dozen hoodies?  My personal goal for the next couple of weeks is to go through and donate at least half, if not three quarters, of the clothes that I own.  Not only am I trying to seriously down-size my life and belongings, but I've seen first-hand how much more people could use this stuff than me.

Not everything I've observed is bad.  While this reflection may come across as overwhelmingly negative, it's actually quite the opposite to me.  I've never felt so grateful in my life.  I've lived on quite a bit less financially, done a lot more things by hand, and spent more quality face-to-face time with other people as a result of lack of electricity or simply lack of decent services (here's lookin' at you, Vodacom).  I'm quite happy to be leaving some of those things behind, like washing all of my clothes by hand on a miserably hot Manguzi afternoon, or waiting by my phone waiting for an SMS telling me that we got paid so I don't have to eat popcorn for dinner again.  But all of those things have made me that much more thankful for the objects that are so often taken for granted here.

I have been waiting to use and thank my washing machine for being a machine so I don't have to clean my clothes.  I was truly kind of confused at how fast the wifi worked (and works), and surprised to once again see what a GIF looks like when it actually has enough internet to load.  More than anything, it's probably been best to talk to my family whenever I want: sitting with Mom in the backyard watching the butterflies and admiring her veggie gardens, calling Derek and talking to him on the phone for 20 minutes without worrying about an international call charge, having Dad drive me to a job interview and wait for me the whole time because I don't have a car of my own yet.  I've missed them more than words can properly express.

And speaking of home, I live in a seriously beautiful place.  It always hits me most when I'm away from the area, so it's coming on especially strong this week.  The sights, the smells, the sounds, everything.  The ice cream truck driving down the street as kids run down the driveway to meet him, the mountains looming over most roads that you travel anywhere in Red Hook; the smell of freshly cut grass, the street after it rains, and the earthy scent of digging for some veggies in the backyard; the sound of the geese overhead (or "honkers" as they've been called as far back as I can remember), the crickets and tree frogs that come out to chatter after the sun goes down.  All in all, I may not end up staying and settling here in the future, but right now it feels damn good to be home.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Week of Lasts

Needless to say, an excessive amount of time has passed since I last posted on this blog. That's not to say that nothing has happened, I just didn't feel like it was worth writing about. The first few months of school I felt discouraged and useless, waiting and waiting and waiting for the completion of a store room that we had hired a person to build. He stopped showing up for months at a time and I watched the days tick by as my Close of Service date approached and my library project stood still in time.

However, it's lucky that I have a few friends who work quite well with their hands and came to school with me over school holiday and built the roof and its frame out of the goodness of their hearts. The following Monday my manager friend from the hardware store sent two of her best builders to complete the final steps of door and window frames, and the store room was a usable space.

The library soon started coming together: shelves were scrubbed, books were stocked, Library Helpers from Grades 5, 6, and 7 were selected. It was kind of a whirlwind; a wonderful, victorious whirlwind of something that I care so much about actually taking shape.


And now it's July 29th. My last week of school. The hardest week of my service, and arguably of my life so far. I've never spent a period of time this long away from home, or been so deeply accepted into a different family and school and culture. I have become an honorary Mngomezulu daughter, a Libuyile Primary School educator, a witness and participant to Zulu celebrations, a part of life in Thengani village and not just another white person passing through on their way to the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen.

I get greeted everyday by forty screaming kindergarteners who want to show off their tiny knowledge of English and throw up their arms when they yell "and. How. Are. Youuuuuuu?" I have Grade 7s coming to me almost everyday asking "Miss, please borrow me your library books." And then I get shy smiles and little waves from everyone in between. Teachers say hello in the morning by calling me Thandi, or umngane wami (my friend), or sisi (sister). And this whole week just makes my heart hurt.

I'm on the verge of tears half a dozen times a day. When the high school English teacher that I worked with last year that this Friday is my last day at school, and she looks at me with tears in her own eyes and says "Thandi, I blame myself. For not spending more time with you. Because I love you." Cue waterworks. When a learner who has struggled for the past two years writes me a goodbye letter saying things like "today I know a English because of you Miss Diana." Again, tears.

The other day when I was washing my hair upside down under the tap in the yard (it's grown so long since I shaved it two years ago that I have to hold it above the ground so it doesn't sit in a mud puddle while I'm rinsing it) I thought, "this is my last Monday doing this." Same thing when I filled and hauled my 15-liter bucket of water to my stoop. And I'll say it again when I'm washing my clothes by hand and trying not to get a sunburn while doing it. I won't miss any of these particular things, but they've become so much a part of my routine, it will feel weird when I don't have to do them anymore.

I have never wanted to hide away and wait for a period of time to pass until now; I partially wish I could just wear a mask or go stay with a friend, because I feel sick to my stomach most of the time. It's the looks on people's faces and the words that come from the bottom of their hearts that rock me to my core. Sometimes I ask myself why I put myself through this if the end is so difficult to cope with. If you're crying or almost crying while reading this, you've got a fraction of an idea of how I feel. But when all is said and done, this reaction on my part and from everyone I love and care about around me shows that I must have been doing something right these past two years.


Today was the first day that I didn't tear up at school. (Most of this blog post was written earlier in the week when I was kind of a walking disaster.) Not even when this happened: A Grade 7 boy who I only met this year was asking me about going home and if I'd come back to visit. I said yes because there are so many people here that I love. He looked back at me and said, "well we love you too, Miss." Or this: Grade R gathered around me and sang a song about how they will never be left with nothing as long as they have their education. Or this: the Grade R teacher told me that she wished the sun wouldn't rise on Friday so I wouldn't have to have my last day at school.


And the dreaded day finally arrived. I did pretty well for the first part: no crying, and pretty regular conversation and tasks. After break the whole staff was brought into the office while I was brought into the room next door to be dressed in my new Zulu attire. The tears didn't begin until I re-entered the room and was greeted by applause. My counterpart GB spoke on behalf of the teachers, citing "the tangible as well as the unseen evidence" of my work at school; namely the library as tangible and the grade that I worked with as stronger English students than the one from the year before. She said that I reminded her of herself, in that I'm a fighter and will do what needs to be done until I succeed. This is why she was the most wonderful counterpart.

I walked outside into a mob of learners with dropped jaws at what I was wearing, but with appreciation in their eyes. Various grades had prepared dances and songs and speeches for my final day, and we spent the rest of the afternoon. I lost it when a group of Grade 4s read a speech about how I'd helped them learn English and how to use library books, and was asked to address the school immediately after. I explained that I was crying because I was happy, and that it was difficult to leave so many people that I love. I ended with saying that when I return someday, I hope they will greet me and tell me how they're doing.

This culture is not one that cries very often, which often makes me feel like kind of a fool because I am an emotional person. When hugging teacher friends and special learners at the end of the day, my crying lead to some of my learners crying, which I'd never seen or imagined I'd witness. They wiped their eyes and stared into space as we wished each other well for the last time face to face. One of my favorite boys, Siyabonga, said "please don't cry Miss, everything will be alright."

And it will all be alright. This wound needs a little bit of time to heal up. But it will. Earlier in this post I talked about asking myself why I was punishing myself by going through this pretty miserable week. But if this week and all its pain are to be a representation of what I've done these two years, I think it was worth it.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Day 7: We'll Be Coming Down the Mountain When We Come

Today's stats: Mweka Camp (3080 m) – Mweka Gate (1630 m)

We awoke to sun coming through trees with leaves. And so much oxygen.

It was a leisurely day, full of trees with vines and moss and singing birds and higher spirits. It was a slow (but kind of hurried) descent through the rainforest back to civilization. There isn't much to say about this day, except that we were slowly beginning to feel like ourselves again.

On the way down we found two troops of colobus monkeys up in the treetops. I walked with Nico for part of the way and asked him his favorite part of the trek. He said he liked the last day, because he was on his way back to his family and a hot shower. I laughed and agreed.

When we started to see locals gathering wood from the forest on either side of the trail, my heart jumped because I knew we were close. When we made it to the parking lot and were reunited with our porters, I immediately switched into my Chacos to expose my poor blistered heels to some air. We met our UW friends at the sign in book and chatted with them for the last time before they got ready to fly home. They wished us luck with the rest of service.

We drove back to the hotel, and I took the most glorious shower of my life.

Day 6: On the Roof/ Summit Day (Get Up and Get Down)

Today's stats: Barafu Hut (4640 m) – Uhuru Peak (5895 m) – Mweka Hut (3080 m)

Today's account begins promptly at midnight. It actually technically begins when we woke up a little after 11 p.m, but we'll say midnight when we set off. I felt strangely awake for having had such a short time to rest and then wake up and get up in the cold darkness. I slept in most of what I had planned to wear for the summit because I didn't know if I'd be able to bring myself to get re-dressed when it was that cold. We went to the mess tent for tea and a small snack (I had to have something in my stomach to take my Diamox). The guides stressed that we eat and drink water as often as we possibly could because the higher we ascended, the less we would want to and it was crucial.

We packed up and started walking over a pretty level rock face on our way out of camp. We were put in order by the guides of where to walk: Jeff was in front, I was next, followed by Alicia, Will, Matt, and Nico at the back. The moon was bright, almost full, so we almost didn't need our headlamps. But I'm glad I had mine so that I could follow in Jeff's footsteps perfectly. I figured that if I kept up with his pace and footing, I'd be successful and not have any issues. If only this were the case.

The moon lighting up the fresh snow was amazing. I wanted to capture a picture of it, but it was difficult for several reasons. First off, I had my camera wrapped in spare clothes so it didn't freeze, and both the batteries were inside my sports bra to keep them warm and from malfunctioning. Second, we were told that if we take breaks, they must be quick ones because it was too cold and our toes might start to freeze if we stood in place for too long. And finally, without a tripod, the shutter speed was really slow and the pictures came out quite blurry. (One picture is attached to this post, and honestly, it does a pretty good job of capturing my general feeling through most of today).

We took a couple of water breaks within a few hours of leaving, and it's a good thing that Matt and Alicia packed a little more water than they needed: the hoses on the Camelbaks that Will and I were using froze, so we were water-less. The guides typically told us not to bring more water than we needed (3 liters for each daytime hike) because it would be unnecessary extra weight, but this time it was a good call. As we climbed, we saw little lights making zig-zag lines across the rising ground in front of us: other climbers that had set out earlier. I heard our UW friends singing a song back and forth about tacos. Feeling the presence of other people braving the same thing as us made me feel a little bit better.

The higher we go, the more my head begins to pound. My vision is actually beginning to pulse. I wished my handwarmer weren't stuck right in my palm: it's my fingertips that were cold and needed its warmth. We climbed some more and then took a short sitting break. It wasn't one that the guides suggested, it happened because I dropped myself down onto a rock. They said we should try to eat something. I pulled a Clif Bar from the side mesh pocket of my pack and almost broke my tooth: it was frozen solid, so I ate it like a hungry animal would, through the side of my mouth with my molars. We started walking again and I hurt all over. At one point, I actually would have rather curled up in the snow and got hypothermia than continue.

The snow kept crunching under my feet interspersed with the loose rocks that almost made me slip more times than I can count. I seriously started questioning what we were thinking when we decided to spend our hard-earned money and precious Peace Corps leave days on this ridiculous trip. People die making this trek. Should we have done more research? Did we train enough?

It was starting to get light behind us. Our first milestone was reaching Stella Point at 5739 meters above sea level. The light at our back was orange and pink. This will go on my list of most amazing places I've seen the sun rise; also on the list are on the summer solstice at Machu Picchu, as well as from the top of a church in Oaxaca State, Mexico. Jeff and Nico gave us high fives, and people coming back from the summit told us congratulations and that we were so close. But God did it feel like they were telling us a really cruel lie.

The distance from Stella Point to Uhuru Peak was only about 100 meters, but it felt like a marathon. Each step was harder than the one before it. I felt like all the people that we passed and said, "you're almost there!" were lying. We could see the sign at the summit, but it never seemed to be getting any closer. Finally we made it. Snapped some pictures and got the hell out. The guides told us that the plan was to get up there, take our pictures, and get back down as soon as possible. Which was good for me because I was actually deteriorating this time.

Jeff and Nico said that 5200 meters and below was the safe zone, and that between there and the summit was a zone where altitude sickness can have fatal effects. My head was pounding, I felt sick, and I was beginning to hallucinate, seeing pink tinged snow along the packed-down path. For awhile I thought maybe the snow actually was discolored, that some energy drink spillage was the cause. But seeing both sides of the edge of the path all the way down in this hue made me begin to think that my brain was seriously struggling.

This time arm in arm with Jeff, with one hiking pole in his hand and one in mine, we raced down through the altitude sickness zone. A few times I felt like I was going to fall. Jeff clasped my arm tighter. We ran and ran and even when I said I needed a rest Jeff said no; we had to hurry to get to the safe zone. We kept racing and were met by several of our porters, who were alerted and came to aid in my evacuation. We made it back to base camp and I just cried. I cried in front of all the porters, our whole team. Feeling so helpless and out of control of my own body scared me in a way that I have seldom felt before. Will and I went to our tent and he consoled me until I fell asleep for a little while.

The whole summit took about 8 hours total. After not having had much to eat or drink, we were able to eat a little bit of lunch, but only a little. The guys said to us "you are not eating!" and we could only respond with the excuse of the altitude. After packing up camp again, we began what would turn out to be a 5ish hour hike down to Mweka Camp at 3080 meters. We walked quietly for most of the time, through the desolate landscape of the day before. We passed some metal rickshaws used to seriously evacuate people down to the bottom of the mountain. I was thankful that I wasn't so paralyzed that I needed one of those.

We went down and down and down. My glutes hurt so bad that I made Will wait up for me so I could use his shoulder as support for me to take a step down. He said he reminded me of his grandmother. Trust me, I felt like I had arthritis.

At the gate, there was a poster with all the different species we may come across over the course of our trek. I thought the shrews were the funniest looking, and therefore hoped to see one. Jeff and Nico told us that they were very rare to see and that I shouldn't count on seeing one. On our way down, I saw a baby shrew. It was adorable and looked so fuzzy. It made me smile for the first time all day. Thank you, baby shrew.

The other best part of the day was when we reached our camp. I lowered myself down onto my sleeping mat with my muddy boots outside the door. We ate dinner and went to bed as soon as possible. It's been a day for the books.

Day 5: On the Moon/ To the Bottom of the Beast

Today's stats: Karanga Valley (3800 m) – Barafu Hut (4640 m)

When we woke up we could see the Peak. By the time we had breakfast and saddled up for the day, we were once again shrouded in clouds and fog. After walking only a minute or so upwards, the tents that were left at camp were gone from view. We were once again walking through a grey, fuzzy-seeming landscape because nothing is in focus because of all the fog.

The present environment is referred to as an alpine desert, so kind of like what I'd picture the surface of the moon to look like. It's just rocks wherever you look: jagged ones, round ones, big ones, small ones. Rocks. And then it just started to snow. For hours.

This day was nothing exciting and we saw nothing beautiful or intriguing. By the time we made it to the office at base camp to sign in, all of our porters were on the porch taking shelter from the cold snow/ sleet. We had to wait to be told where we could set up camp, so we spent that time sharing trail mix with our team.

When we had a tent pitched, we dove inside only to find that it wasn't all that much warmer and our sleeping mats were quite wet. We were also covered in layers of wet clothing, so I took the extra shoelaces that Will's mom sent and made two clotheslines in our already small living space inside the tent. Will thought they were annoying, but I know that he was happy to have slightly drier glove liners and socks when we had to leave the tent to venture to the "toilet" or the mess tent.

Upon first entering the tent, we heard the light pitter patter of frozen water hitting the roof. After a little while we heard nothing and thought it might be safe to step outside. We slowly opened the tent door and were greeted by blinding white; the sleet had stopped and now it was just snowing. Hard.

I found a Sudoku book in my Books for Africa shipment and took it along on the trip, which turned out to be a really good idea considering all the down time we had. We waited out the snow by doing yet another puzzle, a medium level one where we passed the book back and forth at each turn.

As we were at the summit base camp, we had a special afternoon lunchtime briefing on the protocol for our summit. We would eat an early dinner, go to sleep around 5 p.m, wake up a little after 11 p.m, eat a snack and have tea, and then begin climbing at midnight. As we saw each day that we tried to look at the summit, it was always covered in clouds. If we wanted to see it clearly, we would have to walk through the night and get there early. My account of Day 5 ends here.

Day 4: Get Ready for "Breakfast"

Today's stats: Barranco Hut (3900 m) – Karanga Valley (3800 m)

First off, don't be fooled by today's stats. We didn't just descend 100 meters. There was quite a bit of up and down today, up to a maximum of 4200 meters at one point. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This morning we experienced two new things: first, we awoke to a layer of frost on the outside of our tent flaps. (You think this is cold? You haven't seen anything yet.) And secondly, we were reminded of what a sunny morning looks like. After a full night's sleep, I feel kind of like a new person. We all make our way to the mess tent, with its door open and facing Barranco Wall across the valley where we saw the rainbow the afternoon before. Jeff walks in and says "oh good, you're all ready for 'Breakfast.'"

We watch the brightly colored dots moving horizontally along the wall across the valley. Some of them are hikers who have got an early start, and some of them are porters. After eating breakfast, Jeff tells us that we'll be doing the same as those dots that we're eyeing in disbelief. Barranco Wall, so-called Breakfast because it's what we tackle right after our meal, is the big undertaking for today. It's all about three-point climbing and going extremely pole-pole in the process.

Right before leaving camp I take my first Diamox of the day: it has to be taken immediately prior to some sort of physical activity. We set out toward the Wall, crossing a few streams before beginning our climbing for the day. It's on this day that we were really given an opportunity to admire and be gracious for our porters. Before beginning, we were told that today would be the most difficult part thus far on the trek. We'd have to go slowly and pay attention and be careful. We had to have three points of contact with the wall at all times. The porters made it look like a walk in the park. While we held on for dear life with each step horizontally up, they carried our bags and gas cans for cooking and tents and woven bags on their heads without a second thought. They used no hands and had impeccable balance with each step forward, often taking a steeper and more challenging path up than those of us with a light daypack firmly secured around each arm.

When we reached the top of the Wall, we looked down and saw Moshi where we began this adventure, which both looked and seemed so far away and long ago. As we climbed, I thought about how happy I was with the Columbia snow boots my mom sent from the boot closet at home. At first I thought they would be too bulky, but besides the blisters they gave me that at this point were just red and raw skin, they were holding up pretty great. I had spoke (or thought) too soon though, because when I took a seat on a rock for a water and Clif Bar break, I looked down and saw that my left boot had a huge tear right along the seam. On a particularly jagged section of the wall, I'd heard a noise at my feet but just figured it was the bottom rubbing against something wet. Our UW friends were at the same point, and invited me to join their boot repair club once we reached the next camp. The guys said they had some super glue and had done the same type of maintenance the evening before on their own boots. Matt, being the fixer of any and all things, performed emergency surgery right then and there, using silk medical tape to hold the boot wound shut until we reached camp.

We continued on and saw the same colored dots from earlier that morning, meaning that camp wasn't all that far away. Except for the part where we first had to tackle the steep and muddy descent, cross a river, and then do the same steep climb back uphill with some rock climbing thrown in. No big deal.

Somehow nobody slipped and fell going down and (still with the sorest glutes ever, speaking for myself) we trudged up to the top and found our campsite already assembled. After this afternoon's so-called Diamox Hike (got to do physical activity after taking it for it to kick in), Matt performed some more surgery, this time wrapping tape around several times and then under to hold it securely in place. As with Nemo's "lucky fin" that was small but nonetheless powerful, so became my "lucky boot," damaged but in it for the long run.

Today was the first day that I washed my hair since the night before we began the trek. Will's mom sent over lots of goodies, in the form of granola bars, body wipes for when there is no shower, and for me, a moistened shower cap with instructions on how long to keep it on your head and lather to "clean" your hair. When I was finished, I kind of wished I had just left my hair as it was. I had it pulled back and in a bandana every day, and it's not like I was sweating because it was too cold. It smelled kind of nice(r), but just ended up feeling sticky-ish. But it's the thought that counts. Thank you, Ingrid!

We all felt a little off after the Diamox Hike and after dinner, called it a night in preparation for the next day's journey to base camp.

Day 3: Frozen Hell, Lava Tower, and Diamox

Today's stats: Shira Camp (3840 m) – Lava Tower (4600 m) – Barranco Hut (3900 m)

Last night I had a dream that I was at some open-mic type place singing along to my favorite song by Katie Herzig called Charlie Chaplin. ( Briana was there too, playing guitar. Then I woke up. That was the best part of the day.

The stats posted above show us climbing and then descending again. You may wonder why not just stay at that higher elevation and then continue on up? Today we were introduced to the practice of "climb high, sleep low." The idea is to introduce your body to what it feels like to be at a higher altitude so it can begin to adjust, but then sleep lower because the higher the altitude, the less sleep you get because there is less air.

So we start out walking and the pressure in my head is back. I took some painkillers to hopefully help it subside and pushed on. Today is miserable in more ways than one. Not only do I feel like inside my head is expanding with no place to go, but what we're walking through is just so unwelcoming. First off, it's pouring and super cold. And then to top it all off, the landscape we're walking through is this lonely, desolate, desert wasteland. It's empty, freezing, uninviting.

The closer we got to Lava Tower the more I hoped sitting down and having something to eat would help me get better. We made it up there and I went over to some sheltered rocks to squat and pee. After standing back up all the blood rushed to my head. I walked past all the little four-striped mice scavenging for food scraps, back to our group. When I made it there, I sat down (more fell down into a seated position), put my head in my hands, and cried. I felt like my head was going to explode, and like I was going to throw up even though there was almost no food in my system, and my layers were soaked through and it was cold. Will's aunt Alicia later told me that my lips were blue and the color had totally drained from my face.

With my condition deteriorating, Nico and Jeff said that I needed to eat something so I could start taking Diamox. The Peace Corps Med Unit provided us with this to help against the symptoms of altitude sickness. The guides suggested that as long as we hadn't started taking it at the beginning of the hike, to hold off until we absolutely needed it. I had reached that point. The smell of the banana made me sick, so I opted for some biscuit packed in our lunchbox for the day. Matt helped me out of my wet jacket and bundled me up in a new dry layer from my daypack. He put a hat on my head to keep it dry because the new layer had no hood. Nico took my pack and helped me to my feet. I've never felt so helpless in my life.

Arm in arm with Nico, we rushed down a steep decline made up of loose rocks of all sizes. During some season it must be an active mountain stream, because we walked over trickling rivers all the way down. Altitude sickness for me had the following symptoms: I had no sense of balance, my head was pounding (literally), and I felt super lethargic and sick; making our descent was really frightening.

I felt slightly better the more we walked. We were just about to Barranco Hut when it started pouring again. We stood on the stairs to the office waiting to sign in, as we did upon arriving at each new camp. I looked out at a less bleak landscape than this morning and rested my head against the railing. I told Will that I didn't know if I could continue if this is how I was going to feel. We made our way to our already assembled tent and I crawled in, curled up, and tried to rest.

When the rain stopped, most hikers started to come out of their tents to look around at the nicest campsite we'd stayed at so far. A big beautiful rainbow had formed in the sky right next to us. Maybe this was the hopeful sign that I needed.

At dinner that night, our chef Walter made us a cake for dessert. Keep in mind, they're cooking over a gas burner. He told us it took him about 20 minutes to make. It was a thoughtful end to a dispiriting day.