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Finding your Stella Point

By Devon Shuman, Senior Staff Writer

A porter woke us up at midnight by knocking gently on our tent and greeting us with cups of tea and cookies. The warmth from the tea was a cozy distraction from the freezing cold and piercing wind outside, but I didn't have much time to enjoy it.

We were hiking Mount Kilimanjaro and it was the morning of Day Five, otherwise known as Summit Day.

I climbed the world's tallest freestanding mountain last summer as part of a three-and-a-half week trip to Tanzania through GIVE Volunteer Programs.

The first two weeks were spent volunteering in Kairo, a small village on the west coast of Zanzibar. Along with the 29 other students on the trip, I would rise every day and witness a beautiful sunrise over the Indian Ocean. We would make our way to the volunteer site, a field surrounded by stone school buildings and libraries, some finished and some under construction.

Volunteers who chose construction spent their hours slogging away in the punishing sun, clearing brush with machetes, crushing stones with sledgehammers or mixing cement. Volunteers who chose education would tutor local students in English, an option that, while not as physically challenging, was more emotionally rewarding. Many of the students struggled with the language, but the look on their faces when they finally grasped a concept was invigorating.

The students in the village were wonderful - always smiling, quick to lend a hand and eager to become friends. They showered us with questions about what our families were like, what courses we enjoyed in school and what sports we liked playing, genuinely interested in getting to know us. One student, Sheby, still messages me on Facebook asking how my health is and how school is going.

While there were some memorable highlights on the trip, such as a day off spent swimming with dolphins and a morning watching a local beach soccer game to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the trip left me with more than just a collection of memories.

We tend to view life as a series of checkpoints, just things to look forward to. A big trip next summer, Beat The Clock this weekend, winter break, tomorrow night. We view everything as an obstacle, something we need to get through before we have fun. We wait days, weeks or even years for something to happen and once it does, we ask ourselves, "Now what?"

One night in Tanzania, as we relaxed in our lodge, a mix of volunteers and locals laughing and sharing stories, oblivious to the worries of the world around us, I realized that we had abandoned this mindset.

Some of us looked forward to climbing Kilimanjaro but, for the most part, we enjoyed what we were doing right then, in that moment.

Our days were simple and relaxed. Our futures didn't dominate our thoughts.

We learned from the locals, too. A conversation with Sheby taught me that it is difficult for the locals to make enough money to attend school and achieve their dreams. Yet, they are always smiling and looking for a good time because they are happy in the present.

There is nothing wrong with looking forward to something, but it shouldn't be all that you do.

Summit Night on Kilimanjaro is a grueling endeavor.

You start at midnight and don't reach the top until about 7 in the morning. Because of the punishing altitude, you're too out of breath to talk over the howling wind, so, for seven hours you're alone with your thoughts, constantly convincing your body to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

For hours you have to fight off the increasingly powerful urge to throw in the towel, to quit. The altitude causes you to feel dizzy and see spots, and with the decrease in oxygen, a throbbing headache is now hammering against your skull.

Turn around! Turn around! Turn around!

Every time you come to the edge of a ridge and think you've made it, you look up to see a new line of headlights snaking up the mountain.

And then, just as the brilliant light of dawn starts to illuminate the world around you, you reach Stella Point, the edge of the crater.

But you still have the summit in the distance.

The sun is rising, and, as you look out, you see a beautiful red hue igniting the sea of clouds that stretch on forever. Suddenly, the pain has dissipated and you admire the vastness of the world around you.

The view is something you might see out a plane window, but here you are, standing on solid earth.

From Stella (18,871 feet), it's only a half-hour trek around the rim of the crater to Uhuru Peak (19,341), the tallest point in Africa.

After you reach the top, there's nothing left to look forward to but a long climb down.

If we chunk our lives into various "Uhuru Peaks," we will inevitably be disappointed when we start our climb down.

But, if instead we look at our future endeavors as Stella Points, then not only will we be able to enjoy the climb more, but we will also have more to look forward to on the other side of the crater.