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On the fourth day of our jungle trek from the New Guinea village of Ilaga to the mysterious, mist-shrouded Carstensz Pyramid, whose 16,023-foot peak we intended to climb, Bob Shapiro, Geoff Tabin and I took stock of our situation. We were three Americans in a distant, primitive corner of the world. We had had our passports confiscated by the chamat, Ilaga's Indonesian military chief. Too impatient to deal with the bureaucratic maze that stood between us and the required "walking papers," we had gone to Ilaga without them, been caught out by the chamat and barely allowed to depart for the mountain.
And now, more than 12,000 feet above sea level in the chill, wet jungle fastness, all of us, including our 16 Western Dani porters, were feeling the effects of the altitude.
Bob was recovering from the flu. Although his strength hadn't fully returned, he was happy to feel as good as he did. Geoff was still blithely and easily strolling into and over whatever came next. We all had been breathless the day we landed in Ilaga, at 8,038 feet, and as we trekked higher the air became thinner. On the second day our thirst had become unquenchable, and on the third, blood pounded in our temples as we walked. Now, on the fourth day, I was dizzy most of the time.
The porters were beginning to complain of vague afflictions that could only have been altitude illness. Our chief porter, Aner, would groan lightly and wave vaguely at his solar plexus in response to any queries about his health. The Dani believe the solar plexus contains spiritual matter called etai-eken, or "seeds of singing." Whether an ailment is of the body or soul, a stomachache or a sad heart, they believe the seeds of singing have somehow been upset, probably by ghosts.
I vomited the day before, and again this afternoon. I was pale and gaunt, and couldn't concentrate beyond the next step. When I admitted to Bob that the dizziness was unrelenting, he soberly warned me against walking myself into pulmonary edema, and the thought of having to turn back alarmed me. I decided that not only would I not vomit again, but that also I would lie about my condition if the subject came up. Fortunately, the nausea got no worse and as I became acclimatized, it eventually diminished.
I also decided to stop straggling behind Bob and Geoff. But keeping up with them turned out to be impossible. It frustrated me. After all, I was the one who had trained specifically for the trek; Bob and Geoff had been preoccupied with final exams at Oxford and hadn't had time for even the most basic exercise. It seemed a weak argument for me, at 33, to plead the ravages of age, but Bob was 25 and Geoff 24, and that was nearly a decade's difference, I told myself. They say you feel age in your legs first, and my legs were spent. Geoff, the natural athlete, had lost weight, maybe 10 pounds, and he was actually getting faster, using the trek to condition himself for the climb. Bob's legs seemed to be getting longer and longer; once I peered up at him as he stood on the top of a hill in his size-11 boots, and he looked like a lean giant.
Bob kept a steady, strong pace. Geoff and I trekked with less consistency, Geoff's pace punctuated by irrepressible bursts of enthusiasm and mine by lapses of enthusiasm, just as irrepressible. The problem, I thought, was not so much my legs as my spirit. My seeds of singing were upset.
On this gloomiest of days Bob declared that even if we should never reach Carstensz Pyramid, the trek would be enough for him and he would go home satisfied. I couldn't understand that, yet I thought I envied it. Bob and Geoff were on their "strenuous holiday," and were open to the experience. All I wanted to do was climb the goddamn mountain. For six weeks I had been reaching for the top of Carstensz Pyramid, and anything that stood between me and the summit—including the trek—no matter how exotic it was and how privileged I was to be there, was an annoyance. It wasn't a good mix: Geoff was game. Bob was appreciative and I was irritated. I had been trained how to climb a mountain, but enjoying the experience was something I would have to figure out for myself.
The chamat had told us it would take four days to reach Carstensz Pyramid, but four days had passed and we were nowhere near it. We thought Aner had also told us four days, but he couldn't have; the Dani's sense of time is vague, and they have no word for any number greater than three. We probably had asked Aner if it was four days to Carstensz Pyramid, and he had nodded, but he would have nodded if we had said 40 days. When I straggled into camp, last by nearly half an hour. I wanted to grab Aner by the shoulders and say, "But you told us four days! Promise me we'll be there tomorrow!" But no doubt that would only have elicited a meaningless nod of assurance.
We had spent the day trekking across the Zengillorong Plateau. On our map the plateau was dark green and covered with amoeba-shaped spots labeled NUMEROUS SINKHOLES. I loved the expression, felt it could be an epitaph. We slogged across this 13,000-foot-high savanna, dodging Numerous Sinkholes hidden by thigh-high grass and patiently waiting to suck our legs off at the knees.