As the days & the weeks meld into one indistinguishable blob and we yearn for a release from our Groundhog Day’esque existence, I want to tell you a story. The year was 1941. Our hero, a young Italian civil servant by the name of Felice Benuzzi, was captured by the Britishers in Ethiopia and marched off to a prisoner of war (POW) camp in Kenya. After a 36-hour journey, when his ‘cattle coach’ wagon train stopped in front of the camp, the very sight of the camp tumbled his heart into his boots. There was not a speck of vegetation to conceal or soften the harshness of the barbed wire fence. As he made his way into the barracks, a poster on a door said, ‘Do you want a happy and long captivity? Do as my grandmother did. She lived for 110 years because she minded her own business’.
In a POW camp, minding your business is easier said than done. In a prison camp, you can never be alone. You open a letter and ten pairs of eyes gaze at you and ten mouths bombard you with questions. You open your suitcase and immediately your ‘friends’ gather around you. You can not even whistle a tune without hearing another prisoner joining in and whistling the same tune.
As Benuzzi describes, in a prison camp, people don’t live, they vegetate. The sole activity for the prisoners was to wander around camp. Every distraction, every spectacle was welcome. Once, he saw a few hundred prisoners gathered between barracks. He approached them, curious to see what held their attention. The prisoners were watching a cat playing with a mouse!
Even though the Britishers treated the prisoners well, the lack of productive work sapped their spirits day by day. He describes, “The spirit gets blunted more and more and the mind of everybody is invaded by an odd indifference”. “Every remembrance of the time when we led a less animal like existence engenders longing and with it a remote kind of suffering”, “To remember is far worse than to forget”.
Worse than captivity, lack of privacy and soul crushing dullness was not knowing how long the situation would last. For Benuzzi, time stood still. A normal life in the future seemed so far off that he did not even long for it anymore.
After living this purposeless prisoner’s life for a year and getting bored out of his mind, our hero was transferred to another camp. The next morning, as he woke up, the clouds parted, and he saw a breathtaking sight. In front was an ethereal mountain emerging from a tossing sea of clouds floating like a fairy on the horizon. It was the 17,000-foot Mt. Kenya and Benuzzi was suddenly in love.
The sight of Mt. Kenya suddenly gave Benuzzi’s life a purpose. A thought flashed through his mind. To break the monotony of life, he would take a risk. He would escape from camp, he would climb Mt. Kenya and then come back to camp. The thought gave Benuzzi a future to look forward to. However, climbing a 17,000-foot block of rock and ice is not exactly a joke. Benuzzi was undernourished and undertrained and had no access to climbing gear. Then there were the dangers: altitude sickness; hypothermia; wild animals (all of Africa’s Big Five roamed the landscape between camp and peak); and the very real possibility of getting shot. Especially since he’d have to brave the camp guards twice – sneaking out of the camp and back in again.
Undaunted, Benuzzi got to work. He understood that he could not do this alone. So, he recruited 2 fellow prisoners in his daring plan. The three musketeers spent 8 months preparing for their upcoming climb. Benuzzi stopped smoking and sold his cigarettes and personal belongings to gather clothes. He fashioned crampons from aluminum scrap and barbed wire. He stole 2 hammers, the first theft of his life, and beat them into a crude ice axe. He made climbing ropes from bed nets. And, lacking any maps, he made sketches of Mt Kenya on a label of a tin can. The hardest part was budgeting for the calories and gathering enough food.
On January 23rd, 1943, after 8 months of preparations, the three musketeers set off. They marched single file with a 4th prisoner at back dressed as a British officer as if being escorted. They walked straight out of the camp through the main gate in broad daylight!
Now, I don’t want to spoil the final part of the story for you. Suffice to say that 17 days later, after successfully climbing Mt. Kenya, the three musketeers got back into camp and presented themselves to the camp commandant. The astonished man rewarded them for their daring adventure with 28 days of solitary confinement (later reduced to 7 days in recognition of their ‘sporting’ achievement’).
Once back in the camp, Benuzzi wrote the entire story of their adventure in a book titled ‘No Picnic on Mt. Kenya’. You can read all about their adventure - how they hacked their way through bamboo forests, evaded the lions and marauding elephants, dealt with altitude sickness, made it to the top and got back – you can read it all in the book. Benuzzi spent another 3 years in captivity but after his adventure up Mt. Kenya, he never found himself short of spirit or energy. After release from prison in 1946, he became a diplomat and became Italy’s ambassador to the United Nations. Today, a saddle high up on Mt. Kenya is named Benuzzi’s saddle in his honor.
Having told Benuzzi’s story, now maybe we can turn attention to the question I posed in the subject line. After all, there is only so much you can amuse yourself by watching a cat play with a mouse. Benuzzi teaches us that the best remedy against boredom and captivity is to find a purpose. It is to use our imagination and creativity to set ourselves to a goal which gives us meaning. You need a goal that is deeply personal, interesting and meaningful. The future exists if you know how to make it. The good thing is that from our brain’s point of view, preparing for a goal is as fulfilling as achieving it. So, if you are an adventurer stuck at home, now is the time to dream big and find some madmen to join you in the pursuit of your grand adventure. Chase that dream. Even if you eventually fail, at least, you will have interesting stories to tell your grandchildren. In the end, isn’t it all about the stories we tell about our lives?
Now, I don’t know which literal or metaphorical mountain you would choose to climb in your life to give it meaning. But, to whet your appetite for adventure, check out our award-winning film – ‘Papsura’. Hopefully, it will transport you to the Himalayas and help you dream of the mountain you want to climb.
I would love to hear back how you are finding meaning in these uncertain times and what mountain you want to climb?
P:S – This BBC article provided the inspiration for this blog post – http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20200408-how-boredom-can-inspire-adventure
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