Expat Adventures: Reflections on Roadtrip

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Our 4-person climb group and guide at the top of Mt. Meru.

by Susan Kellerman

High:  Literally High  – 15,000 Feet

I summited Mt. Kilimanjaro nearly three years ago, while on vacation in Tanzania from Madrid. It was the first real mountain summit I ever accomplished and it was an incredible experience. Actually, it was because of the time I spent in Tanzania on that trip that made me think more seriously about living here. More than that, the training and Kili climb changed my perspective on hiking from that of a means to an end (lots of spent calories = a monster hamburger for dinner, sens guilt) to a euphoric obsession, that I now realize needs to be a regular part of my life.

Many people don’t know about Mt. Meru, the “little sister” of Kili, just two hours to the west. It often is an overlooked mountain, which is quite ironic at 14,980ft tall (which you can’t see over at all), technically harder and much steeper of a hike than Kili. It is a volcano that imploded in on itself and then re-erupted, so the summit is a series of rocky points that lean in, towards the ash cone of the younger volcano, and then drop off straight down – on both sides. You have to skirt the outside of each of these, then over a mini-saddle to the next. And do it about 4 or 5 times, at 5 am, after already hiking up for 3 hours that day. However, the first two days of the hike are basically a bush walk, as there are buffalo, zebra, giraffe, monkeys, and other wildlife in the park, and you have amazing views of sunrises and sunsets on Kili on days 2 and 3. In short: the challenge is worth it.

So, despite my ridiculous fear of heights (only of places/things that present a bit of risk), I made the decision to climb it. My time here would not be complete if a Meru summit was not in the books.  I armed myself with three other friends, a trusted colleague who came as our cook and guide, and a crap-ton of mental toughness and set out for 3 days of walking and climbing straight up and 1 day of straight down. There were moments it sucked…bigtime. There were tears, mostly due to exhaustion and wanting my dad there to speak words of encouragement, as he was always my biggest cheerleader, but knew that wasn’t going to happen. There were times I had to suck it up ask my friend for help getting me through the scrambling parts I wasn’t comfortable with.

But, I did it. And it was awesome.

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View from summit into ash cone with Kilimanjaro in the background.

Standing at the top of Meru, imagining that I was on the cliff of what was once an active volcano, looking down into the ash cone, and looking across the miles to Kili, was…well, why I hike. There were more tears up there, but simply out of relief, joy, and the high that you get from accomplishing something you knew from the onset was going to be hard but choose to do it anyway.

A cool (and very rare) 3-horned chameleon we came across on our hike up Meru.

A cool (and very rare) 3-horned chameleon we came across on our hike up Meru.

Low:  Goodbyes

One of the friends with me on the climb was one visiting from the US. In (what will be) my two years here, this was the only person who has come to visit. I know how hard it is to get here – both in distance, finance, and scheduling – so that made it more meaningful that someone was willing to make the effort.

But actually, for me it was more that I had someone fun to spend time with. It’s been lonely down here, and until this past summer, I didn’t realize how much of a toll that loneliness was taking on me. I always prided myself on being able to be independent: traveling on my own, dealing with daily life on my own, appreciating the little things on my own. But, I’ve reached a point of exhaustion. And it finally hit me about eight months ago in a big way, affecting me so much emotionally that I started seeing physical side-effects. I chose to endure this for another 10 months and see out my two year contract here, despite knowing that it was going to be a struggle to not let myself get any deeper into that loneliness. So, having a friend come and accompany me on my final road trip through Tanzania was amazing.

And that made saying goodbye at the airport all the more difficult. Those ten days were like a little glimmer of healing light…that was quickly dimmed by an airplane, by work schedules, by life. I’ve always had trouble with saying goodbye to people who mean something to me, but this one was particularly hard given all that I’ve gone through and realized in the recent past. My house seemed that much more empty and quiet for a few days. Thankfully, there were some friends that stayed in Moshi over the long holiday, so I was able to spend time with them and get myself over that low. Just like I’ve done before and will continue to do so, as long as I have to.

Glitter: Wildlife

Foreword: this probably falls under “Firecracker” rather than “Glitter”.

In addition to Mt. Meru, we spent three days in Tarangire National Park; another of the lesser-known parks in Tanzania, due to overshadowing by the Serengeti, which is about three hours to the northwest. I love Tarangire, as it’s close to home, small enough to be able to navigate yourself yet with gorgeous landscapes and great wildlife viewing opportunities.

This time around, there was not a lot of wildlife as it was quite green and the animals can have food everywhere, so they hide in small corners of the park away from us on-lookers. We did see lots of elephants though, as Tarangire is known for them. And, we got quite a show on our second day, as we happened upon a small family who was happily grazing and crossing the road that we, and the truck in front of us, were on. We stopped and turned the engine off to watch, admiring their size, grace, and mannerisms, which for me are always fascinating.

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Early-morning scene from Tarangire of a much calmer elephant.

And these elephants made sure we got a show. The mother decided that we were too close or annoying or something, because she suddenly turned around, shook her head, yelled at, and then ran after the truck in front of us. It took off and we waited an instant to see what she would do. She turned around and yelled at us as well, taking a few steps forward, so we backed up a bit. She went back into the brush (which, being green and in full bloom made it that much harder to track her movements) and just as we thought everything was fine, a young teenager came out of nowhere – closer to us – and started what we thought was a charge. That’s bad news. I believe what came out of my mouth as my heart was literally in my throat was: “Back up the car. Now. I don’t want to die at the hands of an elephant.” Thankfully, it was just a testing-the-waters move and once it decided that we weren’t going to cause any harm, it went back into the brush and continued on its way. We quickly moved on as well, as I didn’t want to chance still being there if this one really didn’t want us around and chose to do something more about it.

Those five minutes of excitement more than made up for all that we didn’t see for those three days.

Susan KellermanBorn, raised and educated in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Susan Kellerman decided to spend all her life savings during her senior year of high school and take a Spring Break trip to Spain with her Spanish teacher and fellow students. This was a watershed event, as it sparked her life-long interest in travel and a desire to one day live in Madrid. Fourteen years later, Susan was able to combine her career in music education with her desire to improve her Spanish speaking skills by accepting a job at the American School of Madrid. Currently, she is the music teacher and program coordinator at the International School of Moshi, in Tanzania and enjoying having Mt. Kilimanjaro as her backyard buddy.

3 thoughts on “Expat Adventures: Reflections on Roadtrip

  1. Jacki Brick says:

    Another awesome piece! Thanks for sharing your experiences so that I can live vicariously through you. What a fantastic adventure. You are so brave, I am in awe of all that you have done while in Africa.

  2. Barb Grewe says:

    What an adventure these two years have been! I am so excited that you are returning to Madrid! You are amazing!

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