If you’ve been following my writings for a while, you’ll know that I’m a procrastinator. I’m okay with that. (I’m just not okay with my son emulating my bad habits, but that’s another story).
This means that when the opportunity to set up a table and speak at a Local Author Book Fair at our library came along, I vaguely thought that I should prepare for that. But then summer happened, and back-to-school-shopping, and the 3 back-to-school-shopping follow-up trips to replace already broken compasses and buy shag carpet for the girls’ lockers – yes, I’m telling you, shag carpet, though we did draw the line at the chandelier – and so I found myself waking up on the Sunday morning of the event thinking “oh crap, what am I going to say to these people?”
But in the wonderful way severe time pressure always seems to focus the mind on a singular task, I suddenly found inspiration. Still in my pajamas with only a few hours to go, I sat down at my laptop and started typing, and lo and behold, less than an hour later I had my speech, ready to print and carry with me to the library a short while (and no longer in my pajamas) later, together with a box of books. Here is what I said:
My book is about the week I spent climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with my teenage son. I basically tell it like it was – the months I spent planning for the event, fretting over the event, shopping for equipment, and then, finally, trudging up that endless mountain in a long column of people.
Some of my readers say they like how I didn’t withhold anything in the telling, naming things by their names, agonizing over toilets.
Some complain that I agonize entirely too much over toilets.
I do wonder if they looked at all at the cover – it’s got a big porcelain toilet bowl on it with toilet paper practically trailing off the page.
Maybe they were mesmerized by the glorious snow-covered mountain in the background. As so many of us are.
I actually wanted to put a giant pair of boots and nothing else on the cover, but Cheryl Strayed beat me to that.
It’s interesting – I’ve meanwhile translated the book into German (my first language, actually), and the German-speaking toilet-complainers far outnumber the English-speaking toilet-complainers. My theory is this: Germans aren’t afraid to name things by their name. In fact, I had quite some trouble translating the word “ablutions” into something suitable in German that didn’t contain a swear word. So for them it must have been tedious to read about all my adventures regarding those ablutions, ranging from researching female urination devices to ruminating over King Wenceslaus who perished, sadly, on his outhouse in Bohemia a few hundred years ago. Americans, on the other hand, by and large seemed to relish this exercise of going through the motions, as it were, of following someone’s daily routine of shitting – excuse my language – in the woods. Or, rather in the toilet tent some poor but elated guy lugged up the mountain for us.
In any case, Kilimanjaro Diaries has two parts: Part One, the Planning, in which I talk about how it all came about, how our family ended up in Africa, what kind of research I did (or rather didn’t do), how my climbing group and I prepared for the climb (I mean, other than getting together to down countless glasses of Chardonnay), and how we finally set off for Kilimanjaro via Nairobi, Kenya. And then Part Two, the Climbing, which covers the seven days we actually spent on the mountain, most of them going uphill.
When people ask how this book came about, my answer typically is: Much like climbing the mountain – without much of a plan or thought process, it just seemed to be the right thing at the right time.
What I had really wanted to write a book about was our family’s three years living in Africa – Johannesburg, more precisely. I had created a successful blog about it, and putting that into book form seemed the next logical thing. But when I came back from Mount Kilimanjaro, I realized that climbing a mountain is the perfect topic for a good story. I actually had this epiphany when sitting in my daughter’s English classroom during parent teacher night and found myself staring at the diagram scrawled onto a whiteboard.
- You have your rising action = Days 1-6 on the Machame Route.
- You have your conflict = This mountain is f&@#ing high!
- You have your list of complications = altitude sickness; what, no toilets?; giardia, or some other crappy (excuse the pun) ailment.
- You have your climax = summit night, no doubt, in our case involving a bit of extra drama.
- You have your falling action = in our case it seemed more like sliding-down-action, skating down the scree at the top of the mountain, elated to finally get down to a warmer place.
- You have your resolution = a hot shower, getting drunk, and some life lessons.
I sort of haphazardly started my book project much the same way I started my Kilimanjaro climb: I didn’t think about all the details, and I was slightly scared at the prospect. Had I thought more about it and all the pain that might be involved, I surely would have given up before I started. I basically sat down one day, penciled an outline into my notebook, and started typing. It helped that I was on vacation with a bad internet connection. And then writing the book became all-consuming. I wrote furiously every day, my head over the keyboard just like my head was bent over my walking sticks when walking up Kili, with almost no breaks. About halfway through, I was ready to give up. But then I discovered unexpected beauty around me, much like on the mountain. It came in the form of learning about my predecessor by 120 years, Hans Meyer, the first to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro. Reading his own autobiography and weaving it into my story became the greatest pleasure of writing my book. Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors, and I was delighted to discover that I, too, could weave history and random facts into my own personal narrative. Once I had Hans Meyer – who, incidentally, was also German – the writing of my book became much more fun.
Of course it wasn’t all easy from there. Then came the nuts and bolts of actually making it into a presentable work fit for the Kindle and, even more demanding, a paperback copy, the tedious and frustrating rounds of editing, again and again and again. That part was much like climbing high and sleeping low – 2 steps forward and 1 step back, and never quite getting much closer to the end, where you just want to take the whole manuscript and chuck it over the side of mountain and never have to see it again in your life. That little part where you have a header on each page with your book and chapter titles and running page numbers (but not on EVERY page!), the part I’m sure most readers only ever glance at furtively, it almost brought me to the brink of insanity. If I ever lay my hands on the Microsoft Word programmer responsible for sections, there is no telling what I will do with him.
But in the end, having written a book, much like having climbed the highest free-standing mountain in the world, is a very satisfying experience.
Let me close with a short reading from the chapter “A Garden Trowel? Seriously?”:"As much as the garden trowel sounds disturbing (where do you stow it after the feat?), the alternative might be worse. Most of the camps along the various Kili routes are outfitted with “long drop toilets,” and I have yet to find an online resource that has anything good to say about them. “The facilities here were described as ‘long-drop toilets’, though it was memorably apparent that at this stage the drop was not nearly as long as it had been,” is the most concise and at the same time vivid description of these toilets I’ve been able to find, stemming from the not-so-reassuringly named article “Kilimanjaro? Well it nearly killed me” in The Guardian by Tim Moore. Not that I needed anyone to tell me that. I know all about drop toilets, and they scare the living shit out of me – sorry, I couldn’t resist. My perhaps irrational fear of drop toilets dates back to when I was around 12 years old. Out of the blue, my parents had decided to buy an old castle. If this sounds somewhat strange, keep in mind that I grew up in Europe, and they’ve got castles practically growing out of their ears over there. “Um, what should we get Mary for her 40th birthday? Oh, let’s just buy her an old castle.” Or perhaps: “Want to come to Paris with us for the weekend? Sorry I can’t, I’ve got plans to go castle shopping.” Even so, your parents buying on old castle was definitely not cool, especially when it was revealed to me that from now on we’d be spending our summers renovating our castle in some godforsaken southern German village rather than sauntering along sunny Italian and Spanish beaches as in years past. Still, being rather a tomboy, I had images of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood dancing in my head when we pulled into the courtyard that first summer. But what I saw was more a large and rather plain farmhouse than anything close to what the word “castle” might evoke. Instead of turrets and princesses, there was a crumbling wall overgrown with weeds and a stable full of milk cows. The farmer who lived there had neglected it over the years (if not centuries, judging from his shriveled face), and was only selling it now to finance construction of a new house on the lot next door, no doubt threatened into this course of action by a mutiny at the hands of the women in his life. Because, by golly, that house was old! Something like 600 years. And from what I could tell, the bathroom facilities hadn’t been updated much since the late 1500s. There was one single dark bathroom with peeling wallpaper featuring a few 20th century additions like a cracked tub and a moldy plastic curtain, but the first summer we vacationed there we had to share the house with the farmer and his family. My choices were using the nominally modern amenities of this bathroom at the terrifying risk of coming across the wizened farmer and his equally wizened wife in a state of undress, or using the ancient drop toilet dating from the castle’s beginnings in the 14th century which we had all to ourselves in the part of the house we were sequestered in. I chose the solitude of the drop toilet. To get there, you had to walk up a creaky staircase illuminated by a single light bulb. Then you had to shimmy open the door and turn one of those large iron keys – you know, the ones they present to important people when giving out the key to the city – with all the power you could muster to lock the door behind you. You felt for, more than glimpsed, the wooden platform in the dim light, then you lifted the lid and set it somewhere next to you, all the while trying hard not to breathe too deeply. But however valiantly you avoided air passing through your nose passages, you couldn’t escape eventually inhaling the most awful stink, made worse by the fact that physics somehow seems to dictate that a cold and smelly draft of air always seems to blow up and right onto your ass when you are perched on a drop toilet. The one thing that could be said for that particular one was that there was no risk of splashing. Living up to its name, there was definitely a drop – two stories’ worth of drop to be exact – so that the muted sound of matter making contact only reached your ears after a reassuring delay. Still, to my young teenage self, the idea that below me lay the accumulation of possibly several generations’ worth of excrement was enough to almost make me faint. Somehow I survived that summer and the terror of what I now think might well have been the very last German Plumpsklo in existence. (Plumps is best translated as thud; there you have it, a “thud toilet,” in case you needed a more graphic description.) But maybe you’ll now understand why the phrase Kili drop toilets has stoked such fear in me."
I was pretty happy with my speech. I would have been happier had there been a bigger audience, but I blame that on the library. In any case, it was a good training ground for the next event, one I’ve already been recruited for, which will be speaking to the Friends of the Library, the fundraisers in the local community.
I’ll have to think of a few good jokes to tell them.