Back in November 2017, I saw this job opening at the New York Times. They wanted to hire one person to travel to all 52 places on their “52 places to visit in 2018” list. The qualifications included stuff like “has prior experience at a magazine, publishing company, newspaper, digital publication, film, or other media organization”. Well, Facebook is kind of like a media organization, right?
Naturally, I applied.
One of the questions in the application was “Describe the most interesting place you’ve been to in 500 words”. Here’s what I wrote…
It was the middle of June in 2012. My plane from Amsterdam landed at Kilimanjaro International Airport in Tanzania. A few months ago, a friend had reached out and asked me to join for a climb up the tallest mountain in Africa. After initial skepticism, I had agreed. As we drove from the airport to our lodgings, we saw it in front of us, towering almost 20,000 feet above anything else in sight. It was awe-inspiring and intimidating.
Shortly after dinner that evening, we met our guide. His name was John, a middle-aged, extremely fit Tanzanian man. This would be his 67th ascent up the mountain. After a general briefing, he said: “If anyone gets altitude sickness up there, we WILL ask you to turn around. Even if you can see the summit from where you are, you MUST turn around. Failure is hard, but at least you will live to fight another day”. Everyone was quiet as that sank in.
Next morning, we started our ascent with a group of porters. All of them were Tanzanian, and most of them did not have proper hiking gear. One of them was wearing flip-flops. I asked him how he was able to hike without proper shoes. He responded with a smile, in broken English, “My body is used to this. A good pair of shoes is beyond my budget and feeding my family takes higher priority”. I later tipped him all the money I had.
After four days, we arrived at Camp Barafu, 15,200 feet above sea level. The plan was to hike up to the summit overnight and arrive by sunrise. High altitude was taking its toll on all of us and I had a throbbing headache that was reminding me that I could have trained harder. We started our slow crawl up the mountain face in the darkness, one step at a time, pausing every five steps to breathe. Ahead of me was a long line of headlamps snaking up the mountain like a gigantic worm. Snow started appearing on the otherwise barren landscape, shining brightly under the light of the moon. The clouds were far below us, and the sky was full of stars. So many stars that I didn’t even think was possible to see from Earth. It felt like a dream, except the pain in my legs was very real.
Eventually, the sky turned pastel pink and the summit appeared in front of us just as the sun rose above the clouds. We saw a sign declaring that we had made it to Uhuru Peak, and that all paths there-on led downwards. A girl from the group asked me if I had the energy to do a salsa dance move right in front of the sign. I obliged, and we produced eight counts of the worst salsa performance in history.
It didn’t matter. We were at the top of Africa. All of its nature, beauty, and people lay below us, bathed in the light of the rising sun. In that moment, I felt alive.