Day 278: Hustled?
So at what point do you panic? Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
PATRICK, the guide, is gone. The money is gone. In my pockets is proof of nothing. There is no receipt. I try to take a deep breath and recall what happened.
First thing in the morning at Ibis Hotel, I was sitting at a table far from where the two elderly gentlemen that Patrick said I would be hiking at are sat. Patrick talked to their guide, then came to me, introducing me to his associate.
I peeled 26,000 Shilling off of a bundle of cash that was to last me three more weeks. There's only about 8,000 Shillings left.
Now, I told myself I wouldn't pay Patrick until I met the clients. However, with the two gentlemen sitting several tables away, he insisted on me coughing up the Shillings, so it could be converted to Mpesa – digital money on his phone.
There was no receipt.
Outside, having yet to be introduced to who I presumed would be my hiking companions, I extend my hand.
“Hi, I'm Isaac,” I'm doing the hike with you. “Where are you from?”
They're from Norway.
They aren't aware of anyone else joining their trip.
Odd, I think. Didn't Patrick say they were French and American?
Walking away from the pair, toward the market to track down a used sleeping bag and a pair of warm socks, it hits me: I've been hustled.
All the facts that don't quite line up stream back to me: We never went Patrick's office. I didn't want to, but nonetheless, we didn't go. I have no picture of his guide ID card. In fact, I have nothing to link my payment to the promised service.
The fact that this would make a good blog post does little to ease my anxiety.
Of course, it's a guarantee that I was hustled. It was too good of a deal.
My senses are tingling from a spike of adrenaline, my heart rate picks up. Most people would still be sitting there waiting in the hotel until Patrick is too far away to track. I wander if the hotel staff will help me file a police report or if they took a small cut to not remember anything.
Quickly, I walk back to the hotel to get my phone, which is charging at a table along with my laptop and the remote for the drone.
Patrick's phone rings.
“Hi, Patrick. I wasn't able to get the sleeping bag,” I say, doing my best not to betray my fears. “Where are you at?”
He's at the market. How many times did he wander off saying that he was picking things from the market?
“Oh, okay. So, the guys aren't French and American,” I'm saying.
He's agreeing with me without hearing me, saying something about the men I saw being the clients.
I'm not convinced.
“Okay, I'm entering the hotel now,” he says.
I get off the phone and wait.
I walk out front to look for him. He's not here.
I call. It's only been five minutes, but I call anyway.
He's coming. He says he's coming.
What can I do, but wait? All the details were so perfect: the need to get a sleeping bag; the need to get warm socks; repeatedly asking me not mentioning the price to the clients, as if he and I were in on a little secret. That co-conspiracy is essential to setting the hook. The price itself was also perfect, not so cheap that it was unbelievable, but cheap enough that it was impossible to pass on.
Dice, did you fuck me on this one? Or did I fuck myself by not consulting you to ensure that this was what you had in mind?
The two Norwegians appear at a table not far from mine, a team of guides an porters surround them. That's a good sign, even if I can't latch onto them, at least I know they haven't left yet.
Suddenly, Patrick appears at their table.
He catches my eye.
I give him a thumbs up. He smiles.
Jesus, there was no reason to panic. Things are fine. Things are just fine.
I pay my tab for breakfast.
Out front, with Rafiki locked up in the basement parking lot of the hotel, I pile into a car with a Patrick and three other Kenyans and we're off. The Norwegians are in a different van.
“You got to take good care of Patrick,” says one of the guys in the back. “We don't make a lot of money, so you got to take good care if you know what I'm saying.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Okay.”
There's a beat of silence, just the sound of the car we're in moaning.
“Patrick's the best,” he says. “You need to put a little something extra on top.”
For fuck sake, I'm less than ten minutes into a four-day trip and this asshole is already grinding me for tips. How do I know what to tip someone when I don't know the quality of the service. And, to be fair, Patrick and I already ran the numbers – this is all I can afford. Even getting the sleeping bag seemed like I was pushing my luck.
The driver chimes in pointing out the oncoming eucalyptus tree line, mentioning something about Kenyan politics. He's cut off by the hustler in the group, who wants to keep talking about what I should do with my money.
“Man, listen, I've just started this trip and you're already hitting me up for money? Do you think this is going to help me enjoy the trip,” I snap.
“I'm just saying Patrick's the best,” he says.
Patrick gives the guy an eye, which shushes him.
Brooding in the car, I'm again questioning this plan of hiking Mount Kenya.
Nothing against the mount herself. Mount Kenya is the second tallest mountain in Africa, falling short of only Mount Kilimanjaro, which rests in a kink along the otherwise straight board between Kenya and Tanzania.
Some believe that the all-important curve, which puts the tallest peak in Africa in Tanzania, was due to Queen Victoria bequeathing Mount Kilimanjaro to her nephew, the future Kaiser Wilhelm II of Prussia, as a birthday gift. However, that's not the case.
A more plausible explanation was put forward by Schneppen Heinz: “Put more simply, the Germans had gained Kilimanjaro but not Mombasa, the British Mombasa but not Kilimanjaro. Now it becomes evident why Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania: because Mombasa is in Kenya.”
But who cares? We're climbing Mount Kenya, not Kili.
Am I prepared for this kind of trekking? Nope, not at all. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonell
Mount Kenya collects clouds as it rises above the surrounding arid landscape. The extinct statovolcanic was created about 3 million years after the opening of the East African rift. Before glaciation it was about 7,000 meters tall – hear that Kilimanjaro? The ice cap and warming temperatures heavily eroded the slopes, while the tallest peaks remain at the center of the conical shaped geological masterpiece.
After about 30 minutes, we arrive at Sirimon Gate, altitude 2,6650 meters.
Of the three popular routes up Mount Kenya, Sirimon Gate is the least hiked. The other five routes up the mountain are so unpopular that they aren't staffed and require special permission to use.
From here, we'll spend two days hiking toward Point Lenana, one of the three tallest peaks of the mountain, and the tallest one accessible with no technical mountaineering equipment.
A narrow building with wood shingles and a sign welcoming us to Mount Kenya National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, arches across the road.
While Patrick and the rest of the team, unload all our gear on a nearby patch of grass and Joshua, the primary guide, goes up to pay the park fees, the Norwegians take refuge from the bright sun at a picnic table in the shade of a Kenya Wildlife Service porch.
I introduced myself, again, to Svenn and Tore, the Norwegians.
“Mind if I sit?”
“Of course not, it's as much yours as mine,” says Tore.
Tore is a brisk, tall man with white hair and small dark glasses, while Svenn is a short, potbellied fellow who seems to be on the verge of singing when the talks. His eyes are constantly drifting off to somewhere magical – which in his case would be anywhere on the Arctic Rim.
This is the look in his eyes when he starts talking about dog sledding on the frozen island he calls home.
“It's a connection with the animals. And hard work, you have to be in shape,” he says. “I hurt my knee, but the doctor thought I'd be okay to do the trek.”
Tore, a doctor himself, seems to have his doubts, but mostly bites his tongue about the situation.
“Okay, we go to Old Moses Camp today. Only a few hours of hiking,” says Joshua. “We go slow, slow all the way. If you want to stop, we stop. It's easy, easy. Make sure you drinks lots of water. If anything feels strange, let me know.”
One of the major advantages of taking Point Lenana via Sirimon Gate is that it provides the most gentle assent, taking most people four days round trip. Those taking the peak from other gates, such as Naromoru, often shoot to do so in two or three days, increasing the likelihood of them suffering altitude sickness.
Old Moses Camp is only about nine kilometers up the road, during which time we'll gain 860 meters in altitude.
A wide, new asphalt road runs up through the lower forest area, which is nurtured by the waters of 11 small glaciers still on the mountain. A few of the members of our team, who I must admit I'm only faintly aware of right now, have run out ahead of us. Patrick went with them, taking Dorsey II, the drone, with him.
I made it clear I was happy to carry her, but since they were driving up on a scooter, I didn't make too much of a fuss.
The road we're on continues, steepening for a stretch and then flattening.
“Can we take a break?” Svenn asks, leaning on his trekking poles.
“Yeah, sounds perfect to me,” I say. I know I'm the young buck here, but that makes me even more prone to altitude sickness because of overconfidence.
We sit in the shade alongside the road, Svenn's laborious breathing keeps time.
Moving again, Tore charges ahead. He's a fit old man, eager to keep going.
“Will it be road the whole way?” Tore asks, disappointed with the scenery thus far.
We've broken through the forest ring in the lower region, as well as a thin layer of bamboo forest and are now in heathlands. Tall light brown grasses run thick between healthy shrubs
Joshua says something that I'm not quite able to discern.
After about two more hours of hiking, a large, squat building appears on a grassy knoll against a blue sky. The road we've been on starts to gently curve toward Old Moses Camp.
So it turns out I wasn't hustled, but lord I was asking for it. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It's early when we arrive at camp. Near the welcome sign are a half dozen Jackson's Francolin, looking much like wild chickens, as they peck at a patch of dirt free of sage-colored shrubs.
Though we've been following utility poles all the way up, they now veer toward a weather station farther up the mountain, leaving our camp without power. I'll be forced to conserve both the drone batteries and laptop battery for the next four days, I remind myself.
The camp is made up of two long buildings without frills. In the empty hall of the building for guests is a string of tables and wooden benches.
“You'll sleep in here,” Patrick informs me, opening a door to a dorm room crammed with bunk beds.
There are no sheets or blankets or pillows covering the stripped down mattress. Thankfully, I secured a descent sleeping bag for twenty bucks at the Tusky's supermarket in town, which ended up being about half the price of a shitty sleepingbag without a case that a man tried to pawn off on me in the market this morning.
“Dinner will be ready in about an hour,” Joshua says, as Patrick brings out a bowl of popcorn and some cookies for us to snack on with our mugs of hot tea.
Outside, at the head of the the knoll, a few rocks are pressed together creating a perfect seat.
Far below, hardly impossible to see is Nanyuki. To my back the heathland stretches up to one valley ridge, disappearing, then appearing slightly bluer as it rises back up in the distance. A couple cigarette butts are smashed in the ground next to me as nestle into the rocks and begin to read.
The sound of the mountain, cold breezes whispering secrets from afar to scraggly bushes, fills the air around me as I turn a page in the book and breath deeply.
For a moment, with my back to the camp, I feel utterly alone and deeply content with that, because a whole world is opening up in front of me.