It is Thursday now - day 7 for our group from the States and our fifth day as a crew of 30 journeying around Kilimanjaro. I had hoped to blog much sooner, but my plan for staying connected while here did not pan out quite as expected - and then there are the very full days from sun up to sun down.
There have been a number of surprises on this trip - as you have no doubt read on the blog already. But, despite the irony, surprises are to be expected on this trip. And, for me, by far, the greatest surpise on this trip has been the transformation of this group. It is a transformation we had hoped for and - to some extent, even planned for - but even with that, it has come about in a way that it is much more compelling than I could have imagined.
Just a few days ago, we were strangers from two corners of the world, speaking two languages (actually more than two), and aged 12 to 69. I have to admit, our first evening together in Marangu, as we stood one by one at the dinner table, shared our names, and told a little about ourselves and then went off to our separate rooms, I felt overwhelmed by the dynamics of the group - how will we connect with those who do not speak English? what about the shy members of our group? will the young competitive cyclists we've brought along on this trip leave the others in their dust? will the fast riders tire of the slower ones and will the slower ones be frustrated by the faster ones? will we all be frustrated with each other by the end of this? or - worse yet - will we spend a week in broken, half-hearted communication with one another, separated by our abilities, our languages, our cultures, and our intentions for this trip?
What I have experienced since that night is quite the opposite. On our first ride, I watched in amazement as the young Safari Simbaz cyclists (who are training to be professional cyclists) took their endless stores of energy, and patroled our long line of 30 cyclists - racing to the front, returning to the rear, racing to the front, returning to the rear, and encouraging our riders with each pass. "Are you okay?" "Keep going!" Amazement at their energy and cycling prowess - and amazement at this new role they have created for themselves. My true surprise came, however, later that afternoon. We arrived at our campground - by that point, the Simbaz well ahead of everyone else, and looking like studs as they tore through the final rough and rocky downhill stretch - settled ourselves, then hiked to Lake Challa. A stunning crater lake spanning from Tanzania to Kenya and cupped by sheer rockface and steep lush slopes. An indecrible backdrop for our first afternoon of the week long bike ride. As Curt and I and several others quickly morphed into lifeguard-mode, we watched our group spread out across the shoreline, perching on rocks and logs, shallow dives from the highest perches, toes easing into cool water. The kids immediately began testing their water legs. Some kicking here - flapping there - holding their breath as they dropped below the surface. And it was then that I saw their childhood - in particular, these Simbaz, who had strutted around in cycling gear, and acted as cycling chaperones for our group earlier that day. Our group became guardians and friends and parents in this moment. Sally waded over to three of the boys, whose joy in the water showed in every corner of their faces, along with uncertainty. She asked the boys if they knew how to float on their back and seeing shaking heads looking back at her, she convinced Chege to lift his legs and rest his back in her hands - and eventually, to lay his head back in the water as well. Her hands lowered and his eyes grew wide. As I watched from a rock just a few feet away, I was washed over with a new feeling. It is quite an experience to watch trust suddenly materialize. The wide eyes of Chege morphed into the widest grin I had seen yet on the trip. To see the voice and hands of a mother reach into the mind and heart of a young boy who has come from such a differnt place, a different home, a different life, was poignant. But humans are humans. That is something that we all know on some level. But for me - the indelible thread of our common humanity has a way of feeling new and extraordinarily real - true - permanent - when it appears right in front of you.