“Pole pole,” the guide yelled after me with a hint of frustration. I was a significant distance ahead of our small band of hikers, again, and the local Tanzanian guides were losing patience. Once more they shouted the Swahili phrase for “slowly, slowly.” The reprimand had become so familiar it sounded like the chorus to a song I should have known by now.
I knew the reprimand came out of concern, after all the treacherous paths of Mount Kilimanjaro can be as deadly as they are alluring. If the slick earth, loose rocks, giant boulders or plummeting temperatures don’t sabotage you in one way or another, than the altitude sickness just might.
The turtle like pace the guides set are not created to drive you mad but are actually intended to combat the formidable and occasionally lethal symptoms that spawn from acute mountain sickness. Although most of the time, the lethargic strides manage to do both.
I should have been used to this pace by now. I had been living in Africa for the past five months where everything is ‘pole pole.’ The cars drive slowly. The food cooks slowly. Even the African sky seems to bridal the sun’s traditionally prompt trajectory with stagnant delays of scorching light.
Some locals like to joke and say even the people are slower in Africa. And they are. Not in the way the joke implies, but people take their time. It is the African way.
People in Africa tend to live in the moment, deliberately embracing wherever they are and whatever they are doing, rather than unconsciously speeding to the next place, activity or moment, as we tend to do in America. Living with such awareness requires time, and time is something that many in the West find too precious to simply spend on life.
The contrast between the African ‘pole pole’ culture is rather radical, when juxtaposed to the American mindset that idolizes and encourages anything fast. In fact, if ‘pole pole’ is the motto for most of Africa, than ‘hurry, hurry’ would be the motto for much of America. We have fast food, the fast lane and fast forward. In high school and college you can opt for the ‘fast track’, allowing you to graduate without the full four years of study.
Resumes and job interviews are littered with statements like “fast learner” or “quick study.” We skim as opposed to read, and we scarf down our meals rather than savoring them. Even migration habits to and from work each day are coined ‘rush hour,’ for the hurried state in which commuters conduct their routine travel patterns.
I, like most Millennials, understand the appeal of food being ready for consumption two minutes after ordering it. And I fully support any button that allows one to skip boring parts of a movie if only for the sake of making any of The Lord of the Rings movies slightly more bearable. But western society has crossed the line from employing beneficial shortcuts to a dangerous notion where everything fast has become a synonym for superiority, and anything slow is the synonym for deficiency.
Oscar Wilde once said “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” If only Wilde could see us now, “existing” from moment to moment, barreling through life as though the ‘good life’ lies in a coffin rather than the here and now.
Just as hiking the ridges and peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro too quickly can result in severe sickness and even death, a similar metaphorical fate awaits those who rush through their own lives. Speeding from one moment to the next is not living. Such a routine only results in an empty shell, void of the fullness that can only be appreciated upon leisure self-introspection.
It wasn’t till I descended Mount Kilimanjaro that I more fully espoused the ‘pole pole’ lifestyle. I caught myself taking my time as I maneuvered the dusty path. I was no longer compelled to race to the next view or pine for lunch breaks (no matter how well deserved). Savoring each vista, I marveled with every tread my boot left, immersing myself in the journey as much as the destination.
I was content. I was alive. I was ‘pole pole.’
Now that I’m back in America I can’t say that I always remember to live the ‘pole pole’ life. I still skim magazines like they’re flip books and when the clock hits 5:30 each night, I blitz my way to the subway like I’m a quarterback in the Super Bowl. But I have made a constant effort to be conscious of my journey and the richness of the world around me. Slowing my pace taught me to live intentionally and relish the ups and downs that are inevitable in life.
Mount Kilimanjaro taught me that slow is not a synonym for weakness but a synonym for a life of present consciousness.