Today we drove up this crazy, muddy road to the Machame Gate, where we registered for permits and avoided men pimping camping equipment through the gate. Our group started up a well-maintained trail wide enough for vehicles, eventually giving way to a well-maintained hiking trail. At the Machame Gate there was controlled chaos, with hordes of guides, porters and climbers all preparing for their treks whilst avoiding getting hit by shuttle buses. This is not the pristine wilderness experience, but it is beautiful. We hiked up through a rainforest shrouded in mist as a constant, light rain fell. We arrived wet, but in good shape.
Our porters do amazing work. They carry bulky bags on either their shoulders or heads, only occasionally taking breaks. Some even lighted up while resting.
It is odd that guide companies do not ask clients to put everything in a decent backpack to make things easier on the porters. There is so much struggle in life here that it is almost as if it is assumed that life will be incredibly difficult, so one must simply bear the pain. According to our guide Filex, who worked his way from porter to assistant guide to guide over nine years, this is a good job if only because most people are without work.
Still, this job could be made much easier at a relatively low cost, but it is not done. I would imagine that porters do not unite for better working conditions because someone else will just take their place. Look at me, being pro-union after I just got screwed over by mine.
Yet it’s more than that. Today after hiking all day in the cold rain, one of the porters was standing around shivering, yet he didn’t bother to zip up his sweatshirt. Lack of situational analysis? Perhaps. Trying to toughen himself up? Maybe. It’s just hard to shake the hypothesis that this man just wasn’t thinking of improving his situation since he was so accustomed to having a difficult life.
If what Filex says is true, that most people work here only because they cannot find work elsewhere, then I understand even more why two of my friends (both Mexican) said to me independently that they did not understand why white people would do something like climb Kilimanjaro. I have done these types of trips my whole life, pushing physical limits because I wanted to be tougher (and yes, for people to think I was tougher), developing tolerance for things like pain and harsh weather.
These men develop their fortitude in their daily lives, and I doubt most would do this if they didn’t have to, even if someone served as their porter. The act of paying thousands of dollars (the average annual income in Tanzania is about $250, I’m told) must seem ludicrous to these gentlemen. I hope they at least enjoy some of the natural beauty of this place, for there is much.
Copyright Axel Schwarz 2005