In part two of this tale of a trip to the North Pole, Iloti Mutoka finds he has to put his own worries aside to understand what it is that is driving a wedge between him and his Swedish guide.
“Iloti, why are you here? What are you running from? Or running towards? What is this expedition to you?”
Erik had the look of a man who had asked himself that question many times. I waited a beat and answered in a monotone: “I am doing it for charity and for national pride and also because I want to be famous”.
I had that answer by rote, the last part only partly tongue in cheek. I was tired of being sized up, of my motives being questioned. If you get an opportunity to do something that interests you, wouldn’t you do it? What do your reasons matter anyway.
He laughed, a short, mirthless hacking noise. We had been together three days in an effort to bond before the ten day expedition but there was a strange wall between us. Neither dislike or insincerity, it was an invisible barrier. We avoided eye contact and didn’t talk more than we needed to. This sudden inquisitiveness was unexpected.
“This is my last run to the Pole, once I am done here I go back to Sweden,” he told me, matter of factly.
I lifted an eyebrow in mild surprise.
“I have a son in Gotenborg who has insisted I finish my days with my grandchildren.”
I said nothing. Later that evening, after we had set up camp on Bathurst Island, we clustered around our gel stove for heat. Erik took off where he had started that afternoon: “You see,” he began in a low voice, forcing me to move in closer, “the mother of his children is no more with us. As is my wife. It was in Mombasa, she is gone, they are gone.”
Talk like this made me more introspective than I necessarily wanted to be. Yet the heaviness in his voice was compelling. He was the one lost in his thoughts now, words coming out in strange, uneven formations. The wind howling lent an aura of sorrow to his words.
I was confused, but made an effort to comprehend it all, the cold and my own obsessions clouding my logic engine.
He was a taciturn man, but I could sense that he was about to go against type.
“They were just boys, you know. Like you. They were drunk…” His voice shook. “I watched it happen, Stav and I were in the car behind with the twins. It was like a flash, the car was rammed off the road. Rolled many times and no survi-” The trembling voice broke and he bowed his head, unable to continue.
I reached out a hand, placing it on his knee which was now shaking uncontrollably. The percolator was bubbling merrily away, a strange juxtaposition to the mood in the tent. We could use some coffee. The smell of the beverage brewing perked him up considerably, and he steeled himself to continue.
Another shudder. I let him go on.
to be continued…