Friday, June 13, 2008

Mountains of darkness

Typically Jewish, we were late for the start of the hike.

Truthfully, it was African time, not Jewish time that delayed us. Most of our group arrived on the Monday morning of the hike.

None of their luggage did- all our kosher supplies included.

We veered our way down the narrow, muddy road to Arusha National Park, our bus dodging pedestrians, bicycles, goats and chickens. A brief stop at the gate, an even bumpier ride and we were "there".

Our group looked the part in our boots, Raybans, camelbacks and overloaded backpacks. Our bodies tingled with anticipation as our minds focused on the challenge ahead. We were ready.

That's when I noticed that we couldn't see the top of the mountain. In fact, we couldn't see most of the mountain- it was mostly above the cloud. Doubt flitted through my mind. If the top was too high to see, was it too high to reach?
I had hiked Table Mountain and that wasn't easy; the Drakensberg's Amphitheatre had been trying too. I clearly remembered seeing the tops of both those mountains before setting off to conquer them. This mountain was high.

It was just as well I had trained properly for this hike.

Yes, I walked daily, but that's not how a rabbi trains for an expedition like this. Real training took place in the library, not the gym. I invested time exploring what the spiritual take on mountains is; Chassidic teaching prepares you for everything.

Kabbalah talks about two types of mountains: Mountains of "light" and mountains of "darkness".

Chassidic thought makes sense of this enigmatic reference: A mountain is a piece of earth that has been forced skyward. It represents a person's striving to rise from the banality of life to get closer to G-d. Perhaps that's where the human urge to climb mountains comes from; the innate soul-calling to rise beyond normalcy.

Sometimes you can predict your spiritual trajectory in advance- you can see where the spiritual path will lead you. Even before you take the first step of your spiritual journey, you know where you plan to end up.

That's a mountain of "light", a mountain with a peak you can spot from the ground.

Climbing that sort of a mountain takes effort, but it makes sense. You appreciate that every step you take brings you that much closer to your objective. You will always find doable mountains to climb.

Occasionally, you need to take a leap of faith; to go for a goal so impossible you can never see yourself doing it.

That's the mountain of darkness; the peak is so high, you can't tell where it is. You need to trust other people to guide you to where you never believed you could go.

Climbing that sort of mountain takes everything you've got. It's more difficult than you could ever imagine, almost breaking you in the process. Many times along the way, you feel you'll never get there or that you're wasting your time.

When you do reach the top, you're a changed person.

The clouds were still there, Meru's peak invisible. We were ready for the impossible.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Rural bliss

I've just returned from a fascinating trip to Tanzania. I joined a group of a dozen men from Chabad of Hendon to climb Mt Meru, Kilimanjaro's neighbouring little cousin (Meru's about 800m shorter than Kili).

Climbing a mountain is an extreme experience. I've been hiking before, but this was beyond anything I could have anticipated. In the tranquil setting of unspoilt nature, pushing your body to the limits, your mind opens to little truths about life that are worth bringing home to suburbia.

These last few days back home have allowed me a chance to reflect and unpack this amazing experience- full of insight.

Living in South Africa, I thought I was prepared for the African experience. But, northern Tanzania is far more rural than anywhere near my home and the simplicity took me by surprise.

Our guide collected us from Kilimajaro airport and zipped us along the one road that leads into the town of Arusha. Both sides of the road are mud paths, cluttered with bicycles (many veering into oncoming traffic), loads of pedestrians and a mix of boney cattle, goats, donkeys and chickens.

Tropical vegetation lines the streets, banana trees are everywhere. Beyind that, shacks and squalor.

It seems that Arusha's population is generally destitute. A fraction of the community benefits from the thriving tourist trade; the rest live off the land.

Back home we always hear how poverty causes crime. Nobody warned us against muggers or armed robbers in Arusha.

Besides which, the people were so friendly. Everyone greeted us with the traditional Swahili "Jumbo!", they all smiled. Over the whole week, I didn't see any road rage or arguments, our driver didn't even lose his cool when his Landrover packed up half way up a 4x4 track at Ngorongoro Crater.

There were no taxis available on the day I had to head home, so our tour guide arranged a friend to take me to the airport. He took me- all the way in, insisted on carrying my bags, and wouldn't leave until he knew I was going to make the flight (several big-deal motorcades had blocked the roads and we ran very late).

When I asked him if people were generally poor in Arusha, he assured me that my analysis had been accurate.

"So, if they are all poor, how is it that everyone looks happy?" I asked him.

"Because they are happy," he replied, simply.

"How can they be happy? They have nothing," I pressed him.

"Nothing?" he was surprised, "They have peace! We have had no conflict in our country for decades- that is why we are happy."

Simple, isn't it? Money doesn't buy happiness; peace does.