Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Things They Carry

A porter carries a heavy load on the Machame route of Mt Kilimanjaro in front of Mt Meru in Tanzania.

The Weight of Pride

The great travel writer Paul Theroux says, “Go as far as you can.” But what happens when you take this advice, only to reach your destination and find everything you tried to escape has arrived before you? This was the situation in which I found myself on Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa. The trend of “glamping,” or glamorous camping, had overtaken the mountain. The air of true adventure was erased. I hadn’t gone far enough.

In place of genuine exploration was a vivid imitation. While the mountain and the altitude are real, the experience caters to a high-end lifestyle, which has removed many difficulties. Clients have to carry only their own water and clothing for the day, and in certain cases, not even this. Faithful porters meanwhile are responsible for humping all equipment necessary for five nights in the alpine terrain up the trails. But, the things they carry far exceed the typical requirement of gear.

Tables and tablecloths, chairs, personal toilets, and banquet tents are just some of the items porters stuff into their sacks to support the lavish lifestyle on the mountain. So much is required that porters far outnumber their clients on the hills. In large groups, the ratio of porters to climbers is at least 2:1; with the ratio becoming more and more lopsided as fewer clients climb. I completed a solo trip and was shocked to find that seven porters were joining me up the mountain. A van arrived to bring us to the trailhead, and I felt ridiculous with the understanding that seven men were required to bring me safely to the summit.

Climbing is indeed a team endeavor, which many don’t realize, but the situation on Kilimanjaro feels a bit colonial. My head kept conjuring images of the wealthy white man standing atop a summit he didn’t earn. It’s a hard image to escape especially with the number of clients that summit each year.

Water is carried from a small stream below the base camp on Kilimanjaro's Machame route, up one of the steepest sections of the trail. Full buckets can weigh 40 lbs or more.

Many companies boast as high as a 96% success rate of reaching the peak, which sounds extraordinary, until you understand how pampered the clients actually are. Every night, after several hours of lugging extra clothing, sleeping bags, chairs, and tents up the mountain, the staff of porters falls into hardware mode. Tents are almost always erected prior to the arrival of the client, so they can immediately fall onto their sleeping pads for an afternoon nap. The reason I mention tents in the plural is that even in my case, as a single hiker, there was a special enclosure for eating, which was complete with a table and chair, and a separate tent for sleeping, all of which is carried from camp to camp. This means that the porters, with no specialized equipment of hiking shoes, made it up the trails significantly faster that I did, all while carrying at least four times my load.

Other examples of “glamping” abound. On the very first day of climbing on the Machame route, the lunch break takes place roughly two hours hike from the park gate. I arrived to find a group of porters furiously assembling a set of 20 chairs and roughly five different tables, so their clients could have a place to sit and eat their lunch. The makeshift restaurant was promptly disassembled after the meal, at which time the porters ran it up the rest of the trail, passing their clients on the way, so they could reassemble the seats for dinner.

My situation wasn’t diferent. The lead porters of an expedition earn extra money by immediately transforming into a waiter upon arrival at the nightly camps. These guys set the table in the food tent, call you for dinner when it is ready, and bring all the courses of your meal, of which there are usually three. My interaction with my waiter, a friendly guy named John, typically went like this. “Hi Jeff. Everything OK? Anything you need? Anything you want?”

Then, upon arrival at camp four, the final camp before the summit, porters have to ditch their load and descend again to the valley to fetch water, as there is none available on the higher slopes. Clients don’t lift a finger even though their very trip depends on this effort. No water means no camp, and no camp means no summit.

With the help I received from my team, I was able to reach the peak without any major issues. Considering the lopsided nature of what I have to carry versus their load, this should be the case. But I found that others are not so lucky. Descending from the base camp it is impossible to miss the numerous metal trolleys that litter the sides of the trail. My guide Nick told me they were there to carry down sick or injured climbers. He told me a story of a woman who needed a trolley after her knee gave out. It took three different porters four hours to guide her of the steeper parts of the trail until she could resume walking on gentler terrain.

Descending from the summit of Kilimanjaro trails pass numerous trolleys used to carry injured, or incapable climbers off the steeps.

Looking around at the people on the trail and at the camps, I understand why so many porters are required. The clients all look the part, dressed mostly in their branded, and often new, hiking gear. But what’s missing is experience, fitness and sometimes youth. Many want an adventure, just not all of it. But they exist in a world where the lofty prices commanded for “glamping” are within reach. They pay to have the trouble removed. It’s like bowling with gutter guards. Their goal is the summit, the destination, but not the journey, or at least not the parts that aren’t photo-worthy.

And so we have the porters who exist in the ether of this mountain. They are constantly present, but often are not seen, except when quickly passing a group of clients, with the things they carry, our things, gracefully balanced atop their heads. It seems though, at the end of it all, the porter’s loads far exceed the material possessions we pack into their bags. They carry our hopes and our dreams upon their shoulders, and our pride within their hands. We return home, victorious, after climbing one of the Seven Summits, boldly joining the conversation of global travel “who-done-its.” But really, the victory belongs to these porters, who carried us, sometimes literally, the entire way.

The attitude of macho is apparent in the porters on Kilimanjaro, especially considering they choose to smoke in the thin air while carrying enormous loads.

Attitude at Altitude

“Do you fear the altitude,” the porter asked as I took a long drink from my bottle at the sign-in station at camp three on the Machame Route of Mount Kilimanjaro. I turned to face him, a bit surprised by the question and wondering if I had heard incorrectly. He repeated himself, as clear as day. “Do you fear the altitude?”

“No,” I answered, trying to keep the defensive undertones out of my voice. “Why do you ask?”

“We porters only drink if we fear the altitude. Me, I never drink while hiking. Only at camp.”

This was my first major introduction to the mindset of the porters on Kili, the local name for the highest peak in Africa. The mountain is more than a job. It's a manly undertaking, a point of pride, especially because it's so difficult. My guide, and main informant, Nick, shared his feelings on the first time that he climbed Kili as a porter.

“It was awful,” he said. “I almost wasn’t able to do it. And when I was done, I swore I’d never again step foot on that mountain.” That was seven years ago and now he’s proud to call himself a guide and lead expeditions for those looking to summit. But, after learning about the desire to climb without water to prove himself a man, I watched to see if Nick drank anything while we were climbing. Not surprisingly, he didn’t. It made me wonder if his first time was so difficult because of the climb or because of extraordinary, self-imposed challenges and restrictions.

Nowadays, most climbers of the mountain use a special high altitude medication, called Diamox, meant to reduce the effects of thin air on a climber. Even still, many people suffer from headaches and severe nausea when nearing the final camps and the summit, which is just south of 20,000 feet. While the porters don’t summit, and only reach the final camp at just around 15,000 feet, climbing without water is borderline irresponsible, especially considering the loads the porters must support.

The initial weigh in of all bags happens before porters leave the park gate. Porters are restricted to 20kgs each.

Roughly ten years ago, the Tanzanian government imposed a restriction on the porters, mandating they carry no more than 20 kilograms each. The rules are strictly enforced, with weigh-in points at the start and finish of the first two days of climbing. Even so, 20 kilograms is a heavy burden, exacerbated by the fact these porters have little or no training, and even less gear that would help to balance the loads on their backs. Most simply throw their day’s load into a waterproof sack, sling it over their shoulders, and walk. They don’t wear appropriate shoes and if they happen to have
an internal frame pack, like most would use to complete such climbs, they don’t use the included mechanisms that would reduce their burden.

While climbing on the fourth day, I encountered a porter with his 20 kilograms stuffed into an old and fraying Jordache branded bag. But the waist strap was open, putting all the weight squarely onto his shoulders as opposed to his hips. I asked him if he wanted me to show him how to use the waist strap, saying it would make things easier. His response was quick. “I don’t need things to be easier.”

Old and fraying backpacks and gear are the best you'll typically find on the porters of Kilimanjaro.

Apparently, being accepted into the porters “club” at each camp is more important than avoiding an aching back over the course of an entire week. Which brings us back to the discussion on drinking water. Altitude sickness affects individuals at random, regardless of their physical condition. Some people respond well, others don’t. Marathoners have had to turn back on Everest while mere mortals, couch potatoes in comparison, get only minor headaches. That being said, one of the major ways to stave of the effects of altitude sickness is to drink copious amounts of water and to stay hydrated. This is impossible if you refuse to even fill your bottle.

Beyond this, it’s rare that many of these porters, before climbing the mountain, have any experience at altitude. Kilimanjaro is a freestanding volcano, the largest in the world. It isn’t part of a larger range like that of the Andes or the Himalayas. It descends from the summit sloping slowly to the savanna that Tanzania is famous for, the Serengeti. There is no other high altitude in Tanzania from which they can come, being already acclimatized or having grown up in thin air. This can wreak havoc on the lungs, but still some porters manage to bring cigarettes up the hills to puff as they take a "break." 

The lack of water, heavy burdens, and relative inexperience at high altitude could produce a perfect storm, and indeed, some porters need to retire every year, and some do die. This threat though isn’t a deterrence. Most make it to the top, and at the end of the day, almost all have smiles on their faces despite their aching backs and heads. Drinking water would increase their comfort, but reduce their self-respect. It’s a testament to their toughness and in a culture of macho it’s all that matters. 

Climbing Kilimanjaro as a porter is boring work, and porters look to do anything to pass the time quickly. But on low salaries they have to make due with entertainment, like this radio, that only increases their burden.

A Tip as a Wage

Being a porter on the slopes of Kilimanjaro is first and foremost a job. The closest town named Moshi, the starting point for all things Kili, has an economy centered on the mountain. Tanzanians hoping to support themselves and their family head to Moshi from all over the country, some with the hopes of lugging bags up the steeps.

The draw is obvious. Westerners come willing to pay between $1,000 and $5,000 dollars to enter the park and climb to the summit. My trip alone cost $1,555 dollars. This amount exceeds the GDP per capita in Tanzania, and my impression was that it would more than cover the needs of my team. I was severely mistaken.

The evening before my last day on the mountain my guide Nick gave me a sheet where I was supposed to write down the tip amount next to each of the porter’s, waiter’s and cook’s names. Based on the high upfront cost, I expected to pay a tip, but didn’t believe it would break my bank. I hadn’t received any information from the guide company regarding appropriate amounts and didn’t give it much thought. Nick told me the tip recommendations and I literally gasped. Porters were hoping to receive an additional ten American dollars per day, waiters $15, cooks $20, and guides $25. These were daily recommendations over the course of a six-day trip. In short, the team was asking for $600 total, or an extra 40% on top of the total trip cost.

I had two problems with this: the first being the lack of information regarding this expectation. In my financial situation, working as a volunteer business consultant in Nairobi, I only received a stipend of $1,200 dollars monthly. I couldn’t pay an additional $600 on top of a trip that already cost more than I earned in a month. I had based my decision to hike, and my ability to pay, on the up-front, quoted price and had turned down other outfits that cost more.

My second issue was the amount requested wasn’t a tip; it was a wage. A tip is supposed to be something extra that isn’t mandatory and is given to reward good service. This didn’t feel like “something extra,” this felt like the bulk of any income that would be received. Further, there were seven people to support. Maybe not all were needed. But with carry weight restrictions of a max of 20 kilograms per porter many strong backs are required to support the “glamping” that many expect on Kilimanjaro for the prices they pay.

My guide, Nick, and his signature colorful beanie, makes his way up the Machame route of Kilimanjaro on the first day of climbing.

While tips from a generous client may even things out, a living wage for these porters should not be left up to chance or the mood and ability of a hiker to fork over enormous extra amounts of cash. In the US, the tipping culture is more prevalent than in other developed countries, but we still expect to pay between 15 and 20 percent of the total. In my situation, this was less than half of the recommendation, which wouldn’t seem capable of providing porters with a viable income.

It’s strange the government and park service would work to restrict porters’ burdens but turn a blind eye when it comes to enacting a minimum wage. Perhaps it’s a question of influence. It’s obviously easier to enforce rules inside the park than to hold authority over the companies that exist externally. If that’s the case, then clients have the responsibility of purchasing only from companies that pay their workers fairly.

I remember feeling defensive when I went to an ATM to withdraw the $220, or just about 15% of the trip total, and the porters asked for more money. “I’m not a bank guys,” I said.

It was clear they were disappointed. It placed a dark cloud over the last days of the trip for me, creating a situation where I felt I couldn’t ask for anything from guys who I had theoretically already paid. But as I complain, I know the situation for the porters was significantly worse. Perhaps their entire month would be ruined, based on a lack of income, in comparison to my uncomfortable goodbye on the “trip of a lifetime.”

If this tip money really is the majority of what they earn, then giving one-third of the asking can be disastrous. But I still didn’t know their actual wage and was afraid to ask them to their faces after disappointing them. I had a full day in Moshi town, and so I decided to investigate the economics of these companies. I met Ziggy and Jose at a curio shop where they both made artwork to sell to tourists. Ziggy was a painter and Jose carved wood. They told me they both work as porters when the jobs come around. They have porter licenses with their photos on them and it all looks very official.

A portrait of Jose, a porter on Kilimanjaro and a wood carver, at an abandoned train station in Moshi, Tanzania.

When I asked how much they typically made as a porter they quoted a range between 6,000 and 10,000 Tanzanian shillings daily, which converts to roughly three to five dollars a day. This is abysmal even considering they are fed and sheltered for a week on the mountain through meals of bread and ugali, which is a mashed corn porridge typical in East Africa. Further, it confirmed my suspicion that the tip was meant to be the majority of the income received for a week’s work.

Costs to run these trips are certainly high. A park pass is roughly $100 dollars daily for a non-Tanzanian resident. But after food and equipment costs have been tallied, it seems the most important element of the climb, the actual workers, have been left out of the equation. Even with a high wage of five dollars a day, my five porters (the cook and guide make more) account for only one tenth of the price charged to clients.

Companies, in their effort to attract hikers, exploit these porters to keep quoted prices low. While there is a Kilimanjaro Porters Association, Ziggy told me that porters overall are afraid to take a stand because there’s always someone else willing to do it for cheaper. This has driven the daily prices down as low as they are, and as Ziggy says, in an economy that is struggling with people who cannot make ends meet, “the job you have is better than the one you don’t.” 

The things the porters carry on Mt Kilimanjaro far outweigh our material possessions. They carry our hope, our pride and sometimes even ourselves.

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