It’s 5:30 a.m. and still dark in Arusha, the home base for climbers before setting out to the national park.
“Whose bag is this?”
Those were the first words Sera, the man in charge of my life for the next seven days, said to me when we met.
“Mine.” I prepared my acceptance speech ahead of being canonized by our guide for my virtuous packing.
“Your bag is too light.”
Cool. Truthfully the only weight I was concerned about was how heavy my unconscious body would be for him to carry down the highest peak in Africa. Especially when you add an oxygen tank.
Sera is short, trim and quiet — not what I was expecting. His full name is Seraphin, a biblical reference to the fiery angels who proclaim God’s glory. Before he became a guide, Sera was studying to be a priest in the seminary. One of his roles in the seminary was leading the choir at church. A beautiful woman joined the choir one day, and the instant he saw her, Sera didn’t want to be a priest anymore. Today they’re married with three children. Sometimes you just know.
Based on his findings, Sera quizzed me on several items that should be inside my large teal duffel bag:
I didn’t remember what that was, but I knew I had it. “Yes.”
“Two, plus the camelback.”
“We’re renting those … and the hiking poles.”
He picks up our other five bags, subtly shaking his head with disapproval. “These are all too light.”
Dissatisfied but unable to stump us, Sera motions for us to follow him to the closet with the rental gear. Our trip outfitter provided a comprehensive packing list, which my mom had followed with military precision. I’d organized two family video calls because I didn’t trust everyone to read all the emails my mom, dad and Morgan were sending back and forth. But Sera’s questioning made me nervous. He’s been up the mountain hundreds of times, what did I know?
I look at Mom. I can tell she’s withholding a profanity-laced tirade that starts with something about Dad not letting her pack everything and jab about him being cheap. After all, we don’t want Sera to see how terrible we are to each other in the first five minutes of meeting. That’s for day 3.
I can’t fault my dad for being annoyingly light packer, because I operate the same way. When I call my dad before the trip he’ll ask me if I have everything packed. I usually balk at the question, so reminds me that “at the end of the day, if you have a your passport and a credit card, pretty much everything else can be figured out wherever you are in the world.” I felt maybe this wasn’t true on Kilimanjaro.
I compare the polarized battle between light vs. heavy packers to our warring political parties. To frugal packers, there is nothing more annoying than traveling with someone whose reckless over-packing is slowing you down. They complain about how tired they are, say the group is going too fast and injure themselves along the way. Why should I, who made the proper sacrifices through selective preparation, have to help you, who had the same opportunity to prepare the way I did, carry your 50-pound suitcases up six flights of stairs to our Paris Airbnb? Besides, if I, a
Republican oops I mean light packer, help you this time, it will only enable gluttons like you to do the same thing over and over again.
A heavy packer, or perhaps we ought call them thorough packers to be more politically correct, will reply and say they are packing with the communal group in mind. Besides, we can’t expect everyone to be superhuman light packers; that is unrealistic. The thorough packer claims that they carry the majority of the items the larger group may need (think Tylenol, sleeping pills, shampoo, a towel, an extra pair of shoes because its bad to wear the same pair and walk for 10 days). The thorough packer inherently allows the light packer to move fast, whether he wants to accept their help or not, it’s there as a safety net. The thoroughs despise the light packers too — they are righteous do-gooders whose little carry-on manages to make everyone else feel bad about themselves.
Unless of course, you are Rick Steves. Rick has never made anyone feel bad about themselves, which I would argue is at the heart of his multi-milion dollar travel empire, which caters to first-time Americans headed to Europe. The man loves life and is authentically himself, which enables him to actually get people who are used to checking bags for a long weekend in Florida to ascribe to his light packing philosophy:
Packing light isn’t just about saving time or money — it’s about your traveling lifestyle. Too much luggage marks you as a typical tourist. It slams the Back Door shut. Serendipity suffers. Changing locations becomes a major operation. Con artists figure you’re helpless. Porters are a problem only to those who need them. With only one bag, you’re mobile and in control.
Mobile and in control. Everything I aspire to be.
While I didn’t train much for Kilimanjaro, I did watch YouTube videos, not just to prepare and to verify the packing list, but also to scope out the clientele who have “made it.” For example, I watched a video of two middle-aged American women named Justine and Laurie entitled “Kilimanjaro packing for girls” in which they recounted their adventure and the items that got them there.
Justin and Laurie’s “necessities” were extensive: regular wipes for your body, PH balanced wipes for your girly parts, and then coconut-oil infused wipes for your face. They recommended moisturizer, a separate face cream, a hydrating serum, nasal spray for dryness, and rolls of toilet paper (unrolled to save space), adult panty liners to pee yourself if you don’t want to go outside, a nail scrub, and ear plugs. A nail scrub?
As someone who neglected to take the proper medical precautions before the trip, I am not in a position to critique these ultra-prepared women. Sure, they’d succeeded, but isn’t there a medium between not bringing your malaria pills and bringing coconut-infused face wipes from Sephora?
I’d had enough of Justine and Laurie and was about to close out of the browser, until Justine, the prettier and spunkier of the two besties said, “Wait! I have more thing! Etiquette! Google ‘etiquette’ before you go!”
Finally, something useful. I kept watching.
Justine: “This is a third-world country! They’re not going to understand that your groceries are being delivered and that your housekeeper cleans every Monday, and that your pet sitter isn’t the nicest person. It’s gonna go right over their heads and they’re gonna think you’re weird.”
Justine’s well-intentioned message missed the mark in my opinion, but this video confirmed my greatest fear: Kilimanjaro had gone mainstream. An intense feeling of regret overcame me. Why did we string Dad along for so long? Why didn’t we listen to his desperate pleas five years ago? In my mind, Kilimanjaro would be tainted.
Notable mainstream trips include going to Bali after Eat, Pray Love and I was at least six years late to the Prague scene. I have no reason to care about this, but a waspy yuppie living in the suburbs who regularly uses words like “action items” and “deep dive,” travel is my desperate last stand to stay outside the fray.