The drive from Arusha to Moshi was exhilarating. I was bubbling with anticipation as I waited for my first sight of Mt. Kilimanjaro. In the distance I could see a lone Maasai tribesman standing on one foot, the other foot resting on his knee. This is a distinctive stance they can keep up for hours, I am told by the driver. As we neared Moshi we began to see more Maasai tribesmen, many of them with young sons, waving down passing cars to ask if tourists wanted Maasai pictures. I remember Maasai like these on my drive to Ngorongoro Crater. Tourist cars would stop, pay them a couple of dollars and just like that it was a photo op. Took the mystery out of the Maasai in a flick of the ubiquitous dollar. Everyone must make a living somehow I guess. The driver just grimaces and shakes his head in disgust.
As we neared the outskirts, the huge massif came into sight. It took my breath away. There it was, the mountain that defines east Africa. Its upper reaches were swathed in cloud. On this, the southern approach to the climbing trails, the mountain can stay hidden in its cloud cover all day. “If you’re lucky and are out early in the morning or in the evening, the clouds might part, good luck”, the driver says as he drops me outside the beautiful old, colonial style inn. Inside, a little piece of Europe has been forever preserved. It’s beautiful and warm. I am shown up to my room as the sun is setting, the last rays casting an incredibly beautiful light on the mountain. In the room I find I can see a side of the mountain, but not the cloud blanketed peak. The day ends early as I am quite exhausted from all the travelling of the past two days.
In the morning I wake up to a glorious day outside. Even before I have breakfast I step outside to see if I can see the mysterious peak. No such luck. So I step back in and have a hearty breakfast. I spend the morning wandering around the marketplace. In Africa marketplaces are living, breathing things. It is always such fun and always unpredictable. You never know what you might find. In an hour or so I’m beginning to feel a bit bored and the book in the room beckons. I look up the slopes of the mountain wishing I had the ability to climb. I find I don’t even have the desire. As I walk back to the inn I am beset by little boys who want to help me find trails, caves, anything. I smile and walk away, dispensing my bunch of bananas among them. I am almost at the door when a lanky little boy comes right up to me. Jambo he says. I stop and look at him again. He has the sweetest smile. He isn’t quite a teenager, skinny, wiry and smiling. “What’s your name?’ I ask him. “Goodwill” he says, ” I ten”. I reach out to shake his hand and in one simple gesture I have a new friend.
He wants to know my entire life history, where I am from, how old I am, have I been up the mountain. “You want see caves?” he asks me. No, I say, I want to see the peak without the clouds. “Hamna matata” (no problem) he says, “I show you Kilimanjaro. You give me dolla?”. You know what they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it must be. “You gimme dolla, I call you when you can see. What your room number?”. Still sceptical, I hand him a dollar bill and give him my room number. “Asante sana” he says as he walks away. I know the inn staff wouldn’t let him into my room. Today,21 years down the line, I shudder at my naiveté. That day, I was just elated at having made a friend in this little corner of the world.
After lunch I stepped back out and there was my little friend Goodwill with another little boy. They walked up to me, Goodwill thrust his right hand at me. In it were two ripe avocados. “For you, is gift”, he said. Then issued an angry exchange in Kiswahili. His friend obviously wanted payment. “No is gift for lady” Goodwill insisted, handing me the avocados. I thanked them. The other boy gave in graciously. They then bombarded me with questions about Dar Es Salaam where they both wanted to go when they grew up. We walked together for a distance. Then Goodwill said he had to go watch the mountain for me. I said I’d be right there on the terrace if he had any news. As the shadows grew longer I despaired of seeing the peak at all. I had only one more full day left in Moshi. It was almost 5.30pm and I thought I’d go in and get a cup of coffee when I saw Goodwill tearing up the driveway. “You come now” he said, “mountain will show”. Still doubtful, I walked to a clearing where the whole massif was visible. We stood about for a few minutes indulging in desultory conversation. Goodwill’s mouth was beginning turn downwards as if it were his fault the clouds hadn’t parted. Then all of a sudden he yelled out something in Kiswahili. I looked up and there like a painting being slowly revealed the clouds parted and I had my first glimpse of the snowy peak of Kilimanjaro. It was like a moment frozen in time forever. It was the most glorious sight to behold. I felt like Balboa when he first glimpsed the Pacific. I let out the breath I was holding. Now I could return to India satisfied. For me it was as close as I had ever come to a religious experience. The curtain stayed parted magically for several long minutes as I drank in the sight. Then as suddenly as they had parted the clouds closed in again. Mount Kilimanjaro was once again simply a mountain, not a clue to the gorgeous equatorial snows.
I went to bed a happy camper. I slept in and woke up to another beautiful day. After breakfast, I stepped out and walked down the way to where we had stood the previous evening. But the snows stayed hidden from view. All at once a great clamour of bells began. All across the city church bells were ringing. I was alarmed enough to run inside the inn and inquire at the desk. My alarm receded as I saw smiles on every face in there. A waiter was doing an impromptu dance. “What has happened?” I asked the clerk at the desk. Never breaking his smile he said “Nelson Mandela is free at last”. I was pumping my fists up and down in joy, my smile as wide as anyone’s. “This is the best day ever” I told the clerk. It was. It was February 11th, 1990. The church bells pealed joyfully all day. I’m sure they pealed everywhere in Africa that day. It was a great day to be alive. As for me, I will forever be glad that I was in Africa that day.
PS: I want to thank my Aunt and Uncle who lived in Dar Es Salaam then, for giving me the opportunity to travel and for encouraging me to go forth on my own. Thanks, it really opened my eyes.