Lost in Translation


Both of my daughters recently told me that they plan on hiking a segment of the Appalachian Trail with me when I attempt my thru hike later this year.  One will catch up with me for a section in Virginia and the other will join me at some point in New England.  Now in their early 20s, both of them have a deep and abiding love of the outdoors and of hiking and camping.  Most people would consider this a very positive character trait.  Not discounting the fact that they participated in Girl Scouts for 10+ years, I’ve decided to take some credit for it myself.  It was very calculated on my part.  First there was camping out with me in a tent in the living room, then the backyard and finally real backpacking trips.  What can I say, it worked – I’ve had built-in hiking and camping buddies for years as a consequence.

What is most curious about this is the fact that my wife allowed me to start taking them out into the “real” wilderness, and not just our backyard, despite, as documented in previous blogs, her deep suspicions about my navigational capabilities.  A number of years ago I gave this weakness in her what could legitimately be considered the acid test.  I had just come back from an unsuccessful attempt to climb Aconcagua.  She felt bad for me not making it to the summit and I sensed an opening, so I went for it – I told her that I thought it would be a really cool idea to take our daughters with me and climb Kilimanjaro the following year.  I considered this a long shot and had prepared follow up arguments, justifications, reassurances, whatever.  I fully expected her initial response to be “no, I don’t think taking your teenage daughters with you on a climbing trip to East Africa is such a good idea”.   Note that in the interest of journalistic integrity I did not say that I thought her response would be “No fucking way”.  This is because my wife does not use bad language, except when giving birth.  Nevertheless, I was stunned when her response was actually “Oh, I think that is a really nice idea, they’d love spending time with you”.

I didn’t second guess her and began planning the trip.  I ended up choosing the Machame route because of its advantages for altitude acclimatization, but this meant that we’d be on the mountain for 7 days.  Could I survive 7 days sharing a tent with my 2 then-teenaged daughters?  It did seem a bit iffy.  But, the Machame route was spectacular as advertised.  Each day you climb through a different microclime – beginning with a tropical/subtropical rain forest and ending, at the top, on a glacier (with global warming, who knows how long one will be able to continue to say that).  The views were awesome, both during the day, with views of Kili herself and Mt. Meru, and at night when the sight of the Milky Way just about took your breath away.

We were incredibly well cared for by our guides and porters.  And, it all paid off.  On summit day we started the climb at midnight.  Looking up you saw a gossamer thread of light beads curling up the mountain.  These were other climbers with their headlamps on, on their way to the summit.   We passed a lot of these folks and ended up as the second group at the summit, still in complete darkness, throwing off our guide’s plan to get there just at sunrise.

As I said, our guides and porters were really great guys and I hoped to learn a bit of Swahili.  But this is where I got into a little trouble.   I should have known better – second languages are not in my wheel house, so to speak.  For a couple of days, as we passed porters and guides for other groups, they would smile at me and my daughters, then point at me and say something that ended with “babu”.  I mentioned this to our own head guide, Gideon, and he told me that “babu” meant grandfather.  This caused me some distress.  Yes, whatever hair I have is gray including my beard.  But, I was not then and to the best of my knowledge am still not, a grandfather.  I wanted to set the record straight.  So I told Gideon I needed Swahili for “I am not these girls’ grandfather, I am their father”.  He gave me a phrase – it ended with “baba” instead of “babu” which he told me meant “father”.  I dutifully wrote it down in my notebook and memorized it.  The next day I was ready.  As a porter from another group passed by, I again heard something that ended with “babu”.  I smiled and proudly spit out my Swahili ending with “baba”.  He laughed.  What had I actually said to this guy?

I admit that I am sensitive to people laughing at me in times of distress.  As evidence of this I offer the following brief vignette:  I worked really hard to try to learn Spanish before my climb of Aconcagua.  After working very late (as usual) one night in my office, I had closed my door to change into biking clothes for my ride home (I was a regular bike commuter).  There was a knock at the door and before I could say anything except “No” (at least it means the same thing in Spanish and English), it opened and a young Latina cleaning lady came in to empty the trash.  I was halfway between work and bike clothes, so to speak.  Remember the nightmare you had in which you are taking a final exam and your mind goes completely blank?  That is what happened to me.  I reached desperately for some Spanish and all I could blurt out was “salida de la puerta”.  I had my back to her so all I got was her response – she giggled.  Then, miraculously, she politely left my office.

But, let’s get back to my attempts to show proficiency in Swahili.  “Jambo”, I was told, meant “good morning” or perhaps “how’s it going” in Swahili.  Simple enough, right?  I wanted to surprise the guides and porters with my additional command of their language.  However, I made a slight error in recording this in my notebook – perhaps I can blame this on the altitude but I wrote down that “jamba” not “jambo” meant “good morning”.  Seems pretty close, right?  Soon I was cheerily calling out “jamba” to any of the porters or guides I met while hiking.  The response I got back was always a nice smile.  I was proud of myself – I was speaking Swahili!  It was only when we got back to the US that I discovered my error.  “Jamba”, according to authoritative internet sources apparently means “fart” in Swahili.

This is what I imagine – to this day, porters on Kili sitting around the campfire reminiscing about the American grandfather who jamba-ed his way up Kili.

I am legend.


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