Pole pole (pronounced pó-lay pó-lay) means “slowly, slowly” in Swahili. I could not imagine a year ago that all I would be thinking about for six straight hours would be this phrase. It rolled around in my head with a rush of other thoughts as I climbed with hundreds of other trekkers from around the world to reach the summit of Africa’s highest peak. I had no idea that here, in the disorienting never-ending uphill, I would find the freedom and permission to radically change my life.
My time on Mount Kilimanjaro was a far cry from my everyday existence as an East Coast corporate lawyer where I wore blazers and high heels to work every day. I had overachieved my way through law school and been underwhelmed by life afterward, and the only thing I dreamt of climbing was into my bed every night after the long work days. But somehow the idea of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro seeped into my consciousness and from then on, it was hard to tuck away. I knew a few friends who had made the climb before and when someone close to me unexpectedly passed away, I felt an instinctual and urgent pull towards it.
I had overachieved my way through law school and been underwhelmed by life afterward, and the only thing I dreamt of climbing was into my bed every night after the long work days.
I found myself becoming enamored with the idea of doing something so outside of my comfort zone that simultaneously required me to train toward a goal. For the months leading up to my trip, I did a host of outdoor and adventurous activities that I thought might prepare me either physically or mentally for the trip of a lifetime. These ranged from nearby day hikes to ice climbing adventures to rappelling. I read countless books and articles about other people’s experiences and fanatically researched the best hiking gear and tools.
My detail-obsessed personality eagerly digested the world of outdoor recreation and all that there was to learn about it.
But my preparation seemed as far away as my office by the time I reached the last camp. After six days of making my way up the mountain with my hiking group, I found myself at the final ascent to the summit. Months of training and preparation culminated in this final push. I remember during my training trying to imagine how I would feel when I got to this point — energized, refreshed, determined? But in reality, I distinctly remember feeling out of place. How did I get here? After all, underneath my two pairs of gloves, gripping my hiking poles, were perfectly manicured red-painted fingernails. What was I doing here? It didn’t matter now. “Pole pole,” they kept saying, and “pole pole,” I kept thinking.
An interesting phenomenon happens when you’re in a stressful situation that is completely your own manifestation — you begin to negotiate with yourself. “You can just stop whenever you want to,” I told myself as I slowly put one foot in front of the other. “This is not something you have to do.” The narrative played on a loop. “You don’t have to do this even though you know you can,” it chattered. And then it chimed,
“Just because you can do something, does not mean you have to.”
My mind had never thought in terms of free passes and reasons not to do something. In all my endeavors, I never had any similar thoughts, probably because I had not let myself entertain an excuse. We can become so conditioned to do something simply because we can without ever giving thought to whether we want to do it. This exculpatory line of reasoning was completely foreign and yet, it was entirely my own. It sprung from my mind as I pole pole-ed my way up the side of the mountain. The thought was empowering and liberating and breathed new life into my climb.
I was doing this because I wanted to, not because I had to, but because it was my choice. I had chosen this trip, chosen this adventure, chosen this experience and I would finish it because I wanted to, not only because my body was willing.
In between those moments of clarity, I could appreciate the experience and my surroundings. It was quiet when I witnessed each warm breath escape my mouth in a smoky shape into the freezing air. It was raw and primitive, the way our never-ending single-file line of hikers snaked their way up to 19,000 feet above sea-level. It was mind-bending how each of us was an individual chasing a dream to reach the top. It was enchanting to be in a completely disorienting combination of constellations and altitude, and it was pure, unforgettable magic the way our headlamps were indistinguishable from the stars in the dark Tanzanian night sky. We moved with a rhythm and a pulse all our own as we made our way up to the summit. Pole pole. We were at the edge of our dreams.
I had chosen this trip, chosen this adventure, chosen this experience and I would finish it because I wanted to, not only because my body was willing.
Reaching the summit of Kilimanjaro is one of my proudest accomplishments, and the journey to get there was what gave me the courage to start living my life differently. “Just because you can do something, does not mean you have to.” Each step on Kilimanjaro gave me permission to shed aspects of my life that even though I could have, were no longer something I wanted. Nothing was an obligation and everything became a choice.
Each action I took was an expression of what I desired in my life, not a product solely born out of my capability and ability. I left the job and lifestyle that was not a reflection of my hopes, dreams, and desires to seek out what would be. The search has not always been easy, and can be circuitous, confusing and indirect. And I don’t mind it in the slightest. Pole pole.