Polepole

“Polepole,” he said to me in Swahili as I stared up into his weathered face. I was ready to collapse from exhaustion. It translated as “slowly,” but took on more of a meaning like the old saying, “slow and steady wins the race.” I nodded, repeating the word back to him. And then I took one more step in the dark, frigid night air of Mount Kilimanjaro.

I spent most of my life making cautious, predictable choices. Last fall I decided to change that and booked this trip to challenge myself in a way I’d never done before. Now here I was setting out at midnight on the fourth day of the climb, accompanied only by a guide named Solomon. We were taking on the toughest part of Kili: the eighteen-hour summit hike. I had to keep a decent pace in order to make it to the top and come back down off the ice caps before the afternoon sun had a chance to melt the snow. That’s when the avalanches came. Although I wore a headlamp, its rays did not penetrate more than five feet. Besides the rocky ground, the only other things visible were the backs of Solomon’s scuffed-up Nikes a few steps ahead.

He had taken a sudden turn to the left. As I attempted to follow him, the rubble beneath my boots gave out. My feet slid an inch, then a few more, and I was sure that I would tumble down the mountainside at any moment. I panicked, hyperventilating the oxygen-deficient air, the coldness of it scalding my lungs. I fell onto all fours and clutched the gravel.
Solomon’s hand shot into the glow of my headlamp. I grabbed onto it and managed to muster up enough muscle to rise and plant myself into the ground. He then led me to a more solid piece of earth. “You’re tired. Eat something.”

It was true. For the past hour I’d experienced gnawing hunger pains, but I was afraid to stay still and allow the bitter chill to creep further into my bones. I shook my head no.

Solomon put his hand on my shoulder. “This is not a race, Rachel. You must take a break.” I knew he was right.

I unzipped the outer pocket of my backpack and pulled out one of my energy bars. Taking a bite, I almost broke a tooth. It was frozen solid. I covered the end with the wrapping and tucked it deep inside my several layers of clothing. The water in my plastic bottle had also turned to ice, so I buried it alongside the bar and let the heat of my body warm them for a few minutes.

The winds surrounding me were merciless, howling in my ears and pecking away at my raw face. My nose became a running faucet that I couldn’t shut off. I’d given up on wiping it. Staring up into the stars, I wondered how many more hours until I reached the top. I considered asking Solomon, but he’d snuck a few yards away to smoke one of his hand-rolled cigarettes. Having grown up in these peaks, he was impervious to the altitude. When he returned, I stayed silent, fearing his answer would only discourage me.

For the next several hours I couldn’t see anything but scree, hear anything but whipping air, and feel anything save for the cold and despair that had become a palpable weight on my chest. I felt lost somewhere in time and space, trapped in a numbing monotony that I was sure would go on forever. I’d done a lot of reading on Kilimanjaro prior to the trip, but nothing could have prepared me for this.

Why didn’t I pick something more feasible to take on? I questioned myself over and over. After I stumbled and fell onto my knees a second time, I realized I was not going to make it. Is it really that shameful? I thought. Several hikers I’d met at the base camps had turned around during the summit ascent. People did it all the time.

“Wait, stop!” I called out to Solomon. When he looked back there was concern in his eyes. “Solomon, I’m sorry but…” I trailed off, panting. So many thoughts raced through my head: the months I’d spent in preparation jogging several miles each day, my long flight across the Atlantic Ocean to Tanzania, our hike up the base of the mountain together the past four days. I didn’t want to quit, but at the same time, I felt too weak to go on. As I debated how to express this to him, the line from an old church song popped into my head. It reminded me that when fear becomes overpowering, I needed to rely on God’s strength to finish the course. From somewhere deep within, I felt a spark of hope ignite.

“I need a moment to rest,” I finished, surprising myself.

As we continued our hike, I kept those lyrics and other familiar hymns running through my head like a radio. Along with prayer, it helped pass the time, and before long we’d come to a clearing with a little sign in the center that read, “Gilman’s point.” I’d heard from a fellow hiker that this spot was about two-thirds of the way to the top. If Gilman himself had been there, I would’ve thrown my arms around him and kissed him! Instead poor Solomon was the sole recipient of my sudden burst of energy. He must have thought me crazy. One minute I was laughing and bear-hugging him, and the next I had perched myself onto a rock and begun to weep. “I know,” he said. “You have the headache and the nausea. Drink some more water.”

“No, I feel fine,” I replied. Yes, I was freezing and short of breath, but we’d passed other hikers along the way who couldn’t stop retching from altitude sickness. I knew how lucky I was. I smiled up at him through the tears. “I’m crying because I know I’ll make it now.”

As we pressed on, the sun appeared over the horizon, making the nearby mounds of ice sparkle. Rays of sunshine, warm and thick, dripped down like honey from a cloudless sky. It became much easier to push forward with all this surrounding beauty.

Soon I spotted another wooden sign off in the distance. As we approached it, I read aloud its simple words printed in English: “Congratulations, you are now at Uhuru Peak, Tanzania. Africa’s highest point. World’s highest free-standing mountain.” I drew in a deep breath of fresh, almost sweet air. I had made it.

Solomon and I exchanged high-fives over mutual grins. As I walked up to the sign to take the obligatory picture, I wondered what the peak’s name signified. “So what does Uhuru mean in Swahili?”

“Freedom.”

I laughed. My shackles of fear and doubt had indeed fallen off. Knowing that God would be there to guide me through even the most difficult circumstances, I could now confidently embrace the rest of my life’s journey. All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other, polepole-style.

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Sucia

I walk behind her. Or rather, I walk behind the two large bags that trail her, the cans and bottles inside them clunking along the sidewalk. They make too much noise for conversation, so we stay silent. My mother is not much of a talker, anyway. Some mornings though, as she sits me on her lap to brush out my tangled hair, I can convince her to tell me stories about her childhood growing up with mi Abuelo and Ita back in Mexico. But not today. Today, we have work to do.

I see yet another trash pile up ahead, one of the many in our barrio. We’ve been to this one every Saturday since we arrived in New York City three months ago, sorting through it with our thick purple gloves, finding the waste that we can turn into dimes and quarters before the Monday trash collectors come. Mama tells me at five cents per a can, this will help pay for my school clothes when I start the third grade this fall. Right now all I have are the few pieces we were able to stuff into my backpack when we left Mexico.

I wonder if she’s heard my nickname, the one the neighborhood kids snicker under their breath as they pass by the fruit stand we set up on our corner each afternoon. Sucia, they call me – the dirty one.

“Things will be different soon niña, hold your head high,” she whispers to me on the days my shoulders slump and I crouch down behind our cart to hide. When we return from the recycling plant this afternoon, she will make a big show of putting the money we collect into the pink piggy bank she bought me. She says by summer’s end, there should be enough to buy me plenty of pretty dresses.

But I hate getting up before the sun to collect cans with her, and this morning she almost had to drag me out of bed. I was right in the middle of a beautiful dream: my father was reading me a bedtime story, and I lay curled up next to him. My belly was full from Ita’s dinner of tamales with rice and beans, and tucked around my feet, so soft and snug, was my favorite blanket – the one that I had to leave behind in Mexico. Papa smelled of the cigarillos he would sometimes sneak outside to smoke…

And then my mother’s face was floating over me as she jostled me from my slumber. The dream slipped away, along with any trace of happiness I’d had. I’d tried my best to hold onto it, but like fingers intent on grasping at rays of sunshine, it couldn’t be done. The warmth of it was replaced by the cold reality of a now-dead father. Tears escaped from the corners of my eyes, betraying me, but I refused to tell Mama why. I knew it would only make her sad too. Finally she just sighed and left the room to gather up our days’ supplies, warning me that I had ten minutes to get ready.

So here I am again, spending yet another Saturday morning digging through other people’s waste. I stare down at my shoes as we continue down the sidewalk. My toes are squished together at the points, but I ignore the pain. Soon I’ll get some new ones. I am deciding what color I want them to be when the sound of a boy’s laughter off to my left grabs my attention. My head turns towards a park there where I see some kids my age playing on a merry-go-round. My steps hesitate, and then slow to a stop. Mama doesn’t notice as I walk over to the fence that separates us from them. I rest my forehead against the cool metal and slip my fingers through the holes. What would it be like to get to play with them for once? Their faces are flushed with joy and exertion as they whirl around together. I watch for a few seconds, waiting for the scolding that I know is coming since I no longer hear the scraping of the trailing cans. When I finally glance at her though, I’m surprised to see her eyes moistening too.

“I’m sorry hija, but not today.”

We continue on towards a pile of basura up ahead. The crazy neighborhood borracho is passed out next to the trash bags. Beside him lay several empty beer cans, and I can see that underneath him the sidewalk is wet. The smell of urine carries through the hot, sticky summer air, causing me to gag. Even though I know he’ll be asleep for a while, I don’t want to get too close. My mother motions me forward with her hand, but I’m frozen in place. Despite the sun beating down, chill bumps erupt on my arms. I’ve seen the way he’s looked at her before, his sickening grin full of decay. Even though I can’t understand what he says in his slurred English, I don’t think it’s very nice. Nothing will deter my mother though. She’s already ripped open the first bag and found several plastic bottles that we can turn in for cash. The odor of rotten food fills my nose, causing a renewed wave of nausea.

Her shiny, black hair is pulled back in a bun at the nape of her neck. When Papa was around, she wore it down. I think back to Chiapas again, to my favorite part of the day when Papa came home from his job at the tire factory. I’d wait for him at the kitchen window so that I could be the first to run up to him as the puerta opened. He’d scoop me up in his arms, then tickle me until I could no longer breathe. Afterwards he’d go to Mama, wrap his arms around her waist and lean in for a long kiss. She’d be cooking dinner over the stove and so he’d hang around to sneak bites of food. Grinning, she’d slap away his hand. Her eyes would sparkle as she told Papa about all her bartering triumphs from market shopping that day. Or she’d recount how one of the chickens had escaped again, her shoulders shaking with laughter as she described chasing it all up and down the calle. Nobody else could make her shine like that, not even me. I look at her deep, brown eyes now and long to see the light in them again.

The night before Papa died was the last time I’d seen her really alive. We were his princesas. When he told us that Nueva York was where we needed to be for all of our dreams to come true, we listened. Ita and Abuelo had both already passed by then, and there was no longer any reason to stay in Mexico. So we made the trip here last May, knowing that we had him to help us navigate this strange new world.

That is, until we didn’t.

One evening he was out biking, making a routine food delivery for his night job at the neighborhood pizza shop, when two men attacked him. The police caught them a couple days later, and I overheard one of the officers telling Mama that my father had died over thirty-two dollars and seventeen cents.
After Papa was gone I was sure we would head back to Chiapas, to our farm and our crazy chickens. But Mama told me our home was here now, that our casa in Mexico had been sold a few days before our move to the States. “This is your future now, hija. You must work hard in school, so that one day you can go to la universidad, and you won’t have to sell cantaloupe and mangos on the street, like me,” she said.

I watch her a moment as she works, trying to salvage the used bottles and cans, trying to salvage our dreams. I stare at the stained T-shirt which hangs loosely over pants that are two sizes too big for her, and I wonder if she feels sucia too. I walk over and bend down to tear open one of the bags beside her. I pray that what she says is true: maybe one day things will be different.

Maybe one day, we will both get to smile again.