I have decided this trip needs 3 separate posts to fully and fairly report the journey.
This is Part One, it covers the mission work at the Mwerini Integrated School for the Blind, the people of Tanzania, the incredible people I met along the way and my travels through 4 countries and 3 continents to get to Tanzania.
Click here for Part Two it is about the mountain itself- the 7 day climb up Mount Kilimanjaro! The route info, the photos, and a daily diary style account of how each day was along with the wonderful teammates I gained as life friends.
Click here for Part Three that covers the few days post climb, my stay in Istanbul, and the final wrap up: How I kept my gut healthy during 2 weeks in a 3rd world country and living above 13,000 feet for almost a week, gear, equipment, what worked, and what didn’t.
I remember sitting at the dining room table the night before I left with my husband having dinner. I was trying to relax, enjoy the last few moments with him and my pooch. It was impossible. There was so much going on- so many details, so many things that could be forgotten or go wrong. The things that cross your mind before departing on a journey like this across the world are mind-boggling. I was very anxious, nervous, and overall scared. I looked at him and said “this is why I have to do this”.
I got dropped off at Sky Harbor Airport and luckily met up with Kristen and Kevin, the owners of K2 while I was checking in. They had about 10 bags they needed to check all the way to Tanzania full of medical donations for the orphanage. It was our first exercise in learning patience as this was the most needed virtue on the entire journey.
We had a team of 24 climbers, 6 dental students, 2 MD’S, 2 DDS, 1RDH, and a few others coming along for work at the orphanage and a Safari.
We met up with several of the other team members and each departed on different itineraries that would ultimately (and hopefully) end up with us all in Istanbul or Amsterdam together.
We found out right away one of the team members and her son would not be joining us. She had not realized until the night before our departure that her passport had expired 3 years prior. You think about the preparation, the t crossing and i dotting it takes to even consider a trip of this magnitude then realize something so minor can quickly derail it. Everyone was heartbroken for her- but she will get her chance later on.
I then met up with an 18 year old vibrant young man named Chris. His Mom had been emailing me for a couple days to be sure he had a travel buddy- that buddy was me. Chris at 18 years old reminded me of myself at that age- quite fearless. It made me think of what life was like before I had 18 more years of life behind me to consider. He didn’t have the experience to know what could go wrong and that was a nice refreshing attitude to have in tow. This was his first time ever leaving the country! Chris and I set out for Houston- our first layover.
Houston was uneventful- we just had enough time to realize we still had 20 hours of in air travel left along with several hours of layovers. One guy on the inter-terminal train was complaining about the 3 hour flight he was about to get on- I told him where we were headed and he quickly reconsidered his plight!
We then boarded our Turkish Airlines 777 airplane where we would be for the next 12 hours. It was imperative that we sleep on this leg of the journey. We had a 10 hour time change to prepare for. I took a half of an Ambien and it was lights out for the next 7 hours. The gentlemen in the seat next to me was a nurse working in Iraq heading back from a vacation in Houston. He was clean shaven and very polite. I woke up 7 hours later and he had grown a full beard practically! Another uneventful flight. Long as can be but relatively comfortable and smooth.
We arrived in Istanbul to total confusion. We had no idea what we were suppose to do or where we were suppose to be. After standing in the wrong line several times and asking questions to people that gave us totally incorrect answers we found 2 of the dental students and Kevin. WHEW… we then had to get to our next connecting gate and had a couple hours to kill- this is where we started to meet many of the others on our team.
This flight was rough. I was totally exhausted and my body thoroughly confused. I was seated in a window seat that did not recline and had 2 people next to me. The guy in front of me reclined his seat fully. I was in a totally miserable scenario for the next 8 hours- I was glad I had practiced meditation prior to my trip. The plane was also totally warm and I felt like death warmed over. We arrived in Kilimanjaro and proceeded to start the lines it took to get through customs.
We quickly realized that 4 people’s bags did not make it… 3 did not have their mountain bags and 1, the M.D. was missing 5 boxes of medical supplies she had been working on gathering for the last 6 months. Suddenly my nightmare flight didn’t seem so awful… The fact that my bags showed up seemed like a total and complete miracle.
We loaded up our bus and headed at 4am to our hotel. It was pouring rain and the mud was quite deep on the roads. It was pitch black so we couldn’t see where we were or what we were driving in. Finally about a half mile from our hotel we started rejoicing… then our bus got stuck in the mud. By the time we got to the lodge and checked in it was 6am. We were due to arrive at the orphanage in 3 short hours.
Even in this dark night drive and arrival to our lodge I already felt welcomed by the people of Tanzania. I have traveled to many countries across the world and not always felt welcome- I knew immediately they liked having us there.
Kilimakyaro Mountain Lodge:
I was introduced to my roomie for the lodge – whom would become one of the sweetest people I have ever met and we found out how much we had in common shortly after meeting. Sharon has the loveliest soul and I immediately knew her and I would be friends for life. Sharon has an amazing story that I would love to feature in a future post. She was helping out at the orphanage then going on a Safari followed by a trip to Zanzibar. I knew I would miss her before she was gone.
I wish I could have slept a little that morning but it was not happening. I proceeded to look around the grounds and soak in the scenery before we left for the orphanage.
The lodge was quite lovely- once the sun rose and we could see our surroundings it became very apparent we were in Africa. The lodge sits on a 200 acre coffee plantation- most of the beans are sold to Starbucks!
The mountain is generally visible from the lodge but the clouds as usual were guarding her. We did get a glimpse of her later that day at the orphanage and again upon our return to the lodge. She was letting us know we were welcome to come visit.
After our quick rest we loaded up the bus (yes the one that a few hours earlier was stuck in the mud) and headed to the school!
MWERINI INTEGRATED SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND:
We had an incredible welcome from the children! The school itself has 600 children in the village that attend and 75 orphans that live in the dorms on site.
19 of the orphans have blindness, albinism or xerodemra pigmentosum. All of these conditions in Africa are thought of as curses. The children can be hunted and killed due to this ignorance. Many are killed at birth and others abandoned and end up at the school.
When Kevin and Kristen from K2 first discovered this school and orphanage the conditions were horrible. They started working with the school 5 years ago.
They had a disease ridden outhouse that was completely unsanitary. K2 built them 2 new bathroom facilities that are sanitary and last year replaced the mattresses that had roaches living in them. They will now get new mattresses every 2 years.
Many of the children had never seen a doctor or dentist their entire lives. Many have severe problems of all kinds. Several grants allowed for a 2 story dental and medical clinic that was just completed to be built on site to service the children, and teachers in the community.
The children’s health has improved by 80%. A few of the children were not expected to still be living today. They were indeed still alive and well when when arrived- one had some infections from a recent surgery to remove some tumors that were treated by the MD’s.
Braille writers, readers, and computers have been donated. Dr. Lisa Chiles was on my climbing team and also is an optometrist for blind children. She played a huge part in getting these resources donated. She is also a wonderful human being!
They are all now passing and all students learn English and Swahili!
The school as a whole only had a 40% passing rate, they now have 100% including the blind children.
There have been many donations over the years to the school that allowed for them to build a large farm to sell their yields as they receive very little government assistance. They also recently purchased 2 cows and are building a lake to farm Tilapia to sell and feed the children.
While there I helped in the Dental and Medical clinic along with the team of 2 MD’s, 6 DDS students, 1 local dentist, 1 dentist from Phoenix along with his wife who is a hygienist. We had several boxes of supplies to organize and put away.
On day two at the school they started seeing patients in the Dental Clinic. These students and doctors were AMAZING seeing 20 patients per day in each operatory. They were such a dynamic group of really great people. I felt very fortunate to be involved!
The kids were so brave- they would only cry if something truly hurt. Many of them would come out of the clinic smiling from ear to ear with bloody gauze covering their teeth! They were such happy and very grateful kids.
I also helped in the auditorium for a couple hours with making art projects with the students and orphans. Kelly who is a language teacher in Wisconsin and also a part time guide for K2 arranged these incredible projects for the kids. This was too FUN! The completed projects are to hang on the walls of the new Dental and Medical Clinic!
There were so many things that stuck with me about this experience. These kids don’t know about t.v.’s or video games. They are so eager to learn and freakishly smart. They are incredibly helpful and the most resourceful people as a whole I have ever seen. They make the absolute most of any opportunity that is given to them.
Something as simple as rolling magazine pages into straws for an art project kept these kids engaged and entertained for hours. School was actually out for the week we were there, the local kids were invited to come and help with the projects- we had so many involved!
The celebrations they had for us were so heartfelt and genuine to thank us for our support. These girls were practicing all day and performed a dance for us to the beat drums of their 2 boy drum crew! They did an amazing job!
I had several little pals that became my shadows during my time at the school. Everytime you would walk through the school a little hand would slip into yours along the way.
The children are taught English and Swahili. I was actually given a lesson on how to count to 10 in Swahili!
The girls like to wear scarves and carry purses considering they all must shave their heads to prevent lice. I brought them a bunch of cute little girly pins, clips and other items to wear.
There is still much to be done however the progess that has been made is beyond incredible. I had one of the most meaningful experiences of my life spending those two days with those kids and the people on our team involved. To be around these kinds of quality people is a total privilege in itself. I can’t wait to see what has changed the next time I see the school!
We arrived back to the Lodge and began our next focus… Mount Kilimanjaro. We had a team meeting with the climbers and discussed our plan for the next day. We got our mountain bags fine tuned and hit the sack after a big dinner to get a good nights rest before the next segment of our adventure began.
While I was packing my roomie and new soul sister Sharon was counting down the reasons she was going on a Safari rather than the mountain. Watching me doing my best contortionism to fit everything I needed in my mountain bag and taking my last shower for a week were the top two on her list!
We woke up after one of the best nights of sleep I have had and all had breakfast together, said our goodbyes to those with alternative itineraries then our climbing team headed for the Machame Gate!