Wednesday, July 7, 2010


A few months back, in Tanzania, we were camping in Malinzanga - a death-ground for clothes. There are so many varied and very robust thorny bushes everywhere that no matter what material your clothes are made of, they don't stand a chance. Some of the thorns are so strong that they pierce through regular sneakers, so expecting cloth to be intact in Malinzanga is almost laughable.

Anyway, we set out on our walking transect at 7:30 am. I had not eaten very well in the morning primarily because eating left-over rice with peanut butter did not sound appealing in the morning (or at any time). I like rice, left-over or fresh. I love peanut butter. But I just can't accept the rice-peanut butter combination. It does not taste bad at all, but somehow psychologically, it just seems wrong. Anyway I still ate a little just so that I had something in me. Everyone else had seemed to have adapted to this strange combination of food. Maybe if you spend a long time in the bush, you tend to get less fussy about food. Maybe if I had spent a few more weeks in the bush, I would be devouring it by the mouthful.

Our walking transect consisted of walking 9 kms in a equilateral 3 km triangle. 9 Kms (less than 6 miles) does not seem a lot, but the terrain was such that it took us 9 hours to finish it. The terrain was the nastiest terrain I have walked over. We were constantly bending, kneeling and sometimes even crawling on our stomachs through thick bushes. The machete (Panga) was brought out constantly to cut down bushes and make way for us to proceed. And to top it all, most of the bushes were thorny- the nastiest thorns that I ever come across. And of course, the drinking water that we had taken fell short and we had to ration it. We had a few cookies with us because usually we would come back to the camp for lunch. But this had taken longer than usual and by the time we had come back, it was after 4. The hot sun blazed away, sapping the last drops of energy I thought I had. Just after noon, I started feeling nauseous. We had almost no water and I knew we were not even half-way through. I spent the next 4 hours thinking about all the water I would drink when we would reach the camp. I don't think I have ever concentrated on one thought for so long and with so much determination ever. I was feeling sick and ready to throw-up, but meditating on that reward of drinking water at the camp prevented me from stopping and got me through those final 4 hours. The others were miserable too, but none of them looked as bad as me.

As soon as we reached the camp, I grabbed a 1.5 litre bottle of water, went into my tent, laid down and just sipped on that sweet nectar for half an hour. I finished the entire bottle. I laid there for another 30 minutes, before I felt somewhat ok. Later when I emerged, Mzee said, "Bwana Jai, after this, you can walk anywhere for any length of time. No terrain can be as difficult as this". That felt good because I realised that it was not just me, who was having a tough time!

While I was laying in the tent with my water, I was thinking about how much part of endurance is purely mental and how much of it is physical. I thought about the farmer we met on the outskirts of Kitisi (another village), a few days back. We were on one of our walking transects there too. The distance was the same, but it was a much more pleasant walk. Mzee had stopped by to talk to the farmer. I noticed that the farmer had suffered a wound on his foot and it did not look good at all. It had swollen quite a lot and he was hobbling on his one good foot. But he was still working on his land. Partly because he did not have much of a choice and partly because he was mentally strong. I think a large part of the mental aspect of endurance is just a choice. Sometimes you make it for yourself and sometimes it is made for you. Either way, the choice determines what limits you can push your body to.