Yesterday was the first day of spring (“Hold the One-Star!” an old newspaper friend of mine would yell here). But the weather yesterday didn’t seem very convinced.
Today, though, we had all the early warning signs of spring: clear skies, fresh breeze, warm sun, everything within sight looking as if it were taking a figurative luxurious deep breath and throwing open its windows. On a less poetic, but no less significant level, every woman in the neighborhood appeared to have washed every item of clothing in the house, down to the dog socks, because then she could hang it all out and literally watch it dry.
You all know my fixation on laundry. Maybe March 22 should be called the First Day of Laundry. Or better yet, we’ll reassign the feast day of St. Hunna of Alsace (“The Holy Washerwoman”) from April 15 to March 22. Just a thought.
But I had a feast day of sun and shadows, myself. This afternoon I had to walk to the end of via Garibaldi to pick up a shirt from Rosie, the young Moldovan seamstress with fingers of gold, who had finished turning its collar. I was happy to have the shirt, along with its additional two years of useful life, but I was even happier to see the sun going down. Because at 5:00 PM or so it had reached the perfect level to create a wilderness of shadows along the broad strip of pavement.
People, dogs, children, assorted objects from pigeons to dog poop, each came attached to its own dark silhouette clinging to whatever point was touching the ground. Roller skates, sneakers, skateboards, paws, flagpoles, old ladies, shopping bags, toddlers — everything had its own personal doppelganger.
Watching all this as I walked home was hugely entertaining. Some people were pulling their shadows along behind them, others were pushing them in front, but whether the shadows were being made to frolic or to stand stock still, or walk smartly along or stretch out into long exaggerated strips of black, or go all shapeless and run into other nearby shadows and disappear, they were all over the place.
Some people look at the sun; I was looking at where the sun was not.
I went, I saw, I climbed, I did not conquer.
Actually, I didn’t intend to conquer anything — it’s always annoyed the hoo out of me to hear mountains referred to as being conquered. As far I (and some mountaineers I’ve talked with over the years) am concerned, the mountain lets you climb it. If it doesn’t, you go home, preferably not on a stretcher.
What conceivably could be conquered is altitude sickness, but one needs to have several weapons at hand which I did not, primarily more time to acclimatize. While our eight days is longer than some treks, it wasn’t enough for me.
I did four days, or half the trek, and stopped at 13,665 feet (4,165 meters). Palpitations. Shortness of breath, otherwise known as panting. Even when I didn’t have those, on Day 2 (“the Day from Hell”) I felt as if I were walking in knee-high water against a powerful current. That was when the trail was flat. On any upward incline — and especially any rocks to climb over, of which there were far too many that day — I had the strength and capability of a garden slug. It wasn’t anything like normal tiredness, with which I am deeply familiar. It was like having faded away till I became my shadow, wafting gently near the bulk of my body.
Finally a voice came to me that said, “If you ever want to see home and hearth and family and the gas bill and that cranky lady in the housewares store again, turn around now.”
Seeing that the only 100 percent guaranteed remedy for this condition is to descend (many sources add “immediately,” which I didn’t do), down I went, along with my friend and colleague, veteran photographer Karen Kasmauski, who was also feeling the effects.
I don’t know how the other people in our small group avoided or overcame this condition. I know that they all made it to the summit except for one girl, who stopped with an hour yet to climb because of intense diarrhea. Another side effect, if you want to know. And that was after they’d been climbing for ten hours. Ten (10) hours.
Two other members who made it to the summit had to have oxygen and were basically carried down by their porters for a while. One of these trekkers, a young woman with more competitiveness than sense, saw that her friend was going to reach the top before her, and consequently started to run in order to pass her and get there first.
You cannot run at 19,000 feet. On the master list of crazy, potentially life-threatening things to do, this ranks up there with poking at a family of blue-ringed octopi. I don’t know how she managed to keep going, but the result was that not only did she need oxygen, she doesn’t remember anything of what happened after that for a while.
True, she can now say she climbed Kilimanjaro. (Of course, I also can say she climbed Kilimanjaro.) I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about not be able to say I climbed it. But let’s move on — the world is full of all sorts of mountains.
For example, education. After the trek, we spent a day visiting two schools which were benefiting from our group. At the first, an elementary school more than an hour outside Arusha, we delivered cartons of schoolbooks. Schoolbooks, I’ve concluded, bear a strong resemblance to oxygen tanks for any child who wants to climb up in life. It’s not that your village child must become prime minister, but without books it’s no more likely to happen than that I would reach the top of Kilimanjaro on roller skates.
At the second, Mwedo Girls Secondary School, which is exclusively for Maasai girls, our group is sponsoring two daughters of one of our group members, Theresia Ismaili Majuka. We got a tour of the school, and saw Theresia’s joyful reunion with her girls after four months. Theresia lives on Zanzibar, where she makes and sells handicrafts to tourists on the beach. She doesn’t let the girls come back to her village on breaks or vacations, because of the high probability that some family members (male) will contrive to marry them off and that will be the end of that. It happened to her.
I believe that Theresia is the first Maasai woman (perhaps first Maasai, period) to climb Oldonyo Oibor, the “White Mountain.” She did it to promote the message of our group, which is “Everybody has a right to education.”
I admire her for seeing it through, but not as much as I admire her dedication to her daughters’ future. The size of that makes any mere mountain look pretty puny.
That means “goodbye” in Swahili. It’s the second word I’ve learned, right after “hello.” I’m taking this in easy stages.
There is a fascinating website called Omniglot which has gone so far as to provide a translation of ”My hovercraft is full of eels” into Swahili, but I don’t think I’ll need to know that. I don’t think I’m going to be seeing many eels.
But I am going to try to climb up onto the Roof of Africa to see if anything needs to be repaired.
Back in two weeks.
Sharp-eyed reader Janys Hyde, who has lived in Venice twice as long as I have, read my report on Ricky and his mania for dropping things off the Accademia Bridge. She sent me a copy of the story as it was recounted in an article in 2011, which ran in the Nuova Venezia. I wanted to add these particulars to the sketch (it was all I knew at the time) I wrote a few days ago.
Here it is, translated by me:
May 31, 1973
Two finance officers and the folly in the Grand Canal
It’s May 31 of 1973, toward 2:50 AM, when the boat that was in service, with the Commandant of the Operative Naval Section of the Guardia di Finanza, Lieutenant Carmine Scarano, and two finanzieri, Alberto Calascione and Vincenzo Di Stefano, is traveling along the Grand Canal on their way to an intervention, passing under the Accademia Bridge.
A few individuals launch from the bridge a slab of travertine which strikes the boat and the two finanzieri dead center. They were moments of terror; the only one to remain unhurt is the Commandant who immediately realizes that the boat, without anyone steering, is heading for the embankment.
With a rapid movement he gains control of the boat and stops it, perceiving at this point the lifeless body of finanziere Calascione and hearing the cries and groans from finanziere Di Stefano who is wounded on the arm.
The Commandant manages to give the alarm and call for help, but unfortunately there is nothing that could be done for Alberto Calascione who, because of the grave injuries to his head, dies shortly after his arrival at the hospital.
Finanziere Di Stefano is kept in the hospital, his physical condition improves, but the memory of what has happened will never fade.
Alberto Calascione and Vincenzo Di Stefano were recognized as Victims of Duty (“wounded in the line of duty”) and of organized crime.
In various editions of Memory Day that have followed (I am still on the track of this commemoration; the paper uses the English phrase which is hard to back-translate into holidays I recognize), Vincenzo Di Stefano has never missed the occasion to commemorate, at the place of the attack, his colleague Alberto.