Running in unknown places

Two decades of living and running on an island, rarely leaving the rock, means that my running routes are well worn tracks. I know every twist, turn, and pothole. I know the distance and duration of the route, when sunset will occur, and when the road will go dark after dusk – year round. I know the houses and inhabitants I pass. I know the dogs that may give chase. There are very few unknowns after twenty years.

A rare chance to travel to somewhere I have not been is a chance to run with all the variables unknown. That first evening on which I arrived I immediately donned running shoes and headed out on a running trail I had identified only from Google Maps. The trail headed up into the Pisgah national forest along the Davidson river.

Trail in the Pisgh national forest

Dusk was settling on Brevard, North Carolina, the temperature was dropping below sixty Fahrenheit, and I had only tropical running gear. I did not know the trail, I did not know the time of sunset nor the duration of twilight after sunset. Every variable was unknown, including how my body would respond to the cold and elevated altitude.

Davidson river

As I headed into the forest a crash in the woods off to my left suddenly reminded me that these forests had animals in them. The forests of Pohnpei might contain a few escaped pigs, some miniature deer from the Philippines, and a few large lizards, but not much more. The forests of Appalachia undoubtedly include a broader variety of larger animals.

Skye drive to reserve road connector trail

Three nights later I had become accustomed to the longer twilight. On a visit to a home three thousand feet up on a ridge line I bolted out the door after sunset to push the my mental limits. The air was cold, frosty cold, the night falling fast on the ridge. My camera could capture only blurry images in the fading light. I was again on new terrain, this time not even a pre-designated trail. I started off on a wide trail littered with leaves that eventually dropped down onto a white gravel road.

Reserve road, Transylvania, North Carolina

The white gravel road first struck my brain as being coral, but running on the road I felt no round, cylindrical, rolling rocks. The gravel was some other white gravel. In the dark and the cold I did not stop to examine the road more closely. After a short trot along the road I came to a cross-country high tension power line and was rewarded with a vista view.

Power line on Reserve road

Runners get to see places others never do get to see. Running in a new place rewards the runner and reminds the runner that self-imposed limitations are just that – limitations of the mind and not the body. At three thousand feet up in a forest I was still running in tropical running gear as the temperatures slid towards 50 degrees and darkness fell in the forest around me. My host was more than gracious and I enjoyed a quick hot shower prior to rejoining the rest of the group.That is a run I will long remember and treasure.

Returning home I also had the opportunity to run a new route when the Australian embassy sponsored the Aussie Wombat Walkabout five kilometer fun run starting from Mangrove Bay. This meant an immediate opening climb from sea level up a hundred meters – 300 feet – by the time one reached weather station hill. The open few hundred meters was the steepest portion of the climb – slowing the runners from the get go.

Aussie Wombat Walkabout 5k

I ran the run in something over 30 minutes, forgetting to close the GPS track at the finish line. When I did close it, back at the car, I had covered 5.25 kilometers in 36 minutes.

Although the start and finish were new, much of the route was my daily route. Still, the new start added a challenge and made the run that much more fun.

Traveling long distances tends to leave one feeling less in control. The places one will sleep, eat, and work may be unknown, the foods may be different. Even one’s schedule and activities are often structured by others. While on the road running is sometimes the only activity where one can feel some sense of control over the activity. Running always helps bring a sense of balance, and a sense of connecting with a place more intimately. The result is a far more enjoyable road experience.

Each new place presents the challenge of unknown routes, durations, distances, and environmental elements. In the newness is a vitality that keeps one feeling young.

If I had any advice to give to the youth it would be to start running when you are young and to keep running. Run for your life, for the good life that running can bring.

Along the trail in Brevard

Running with numbers

An upgrade in cellular technologies has returned global positioning satellite capabilities to my joggling runs. Previous GPS technologies involved the use of hand held Garmin eTrex units. Running and juggling deprives me of the ability to hand carry a GPS unit. The recent acquisition of an LG Optimus II P715 has provided GPS capabilities while running and juggling. Arm mounting a GPS on a joggler produces a suboptimal antenna orientation, but given that the platform is a cell phone, the unit performs rather well. Google Tracks provides app support with maps, even out here beyond the outer edge of paradise.

NBFS Santiago run

By the GPS I did not return to where I started, but then a run does change one. One probably never does return to quite the same place as where one was where they left. Maybe the GPS unit is a philosophical unit, but more likely the GPS unit lost satellite signals under the trees up into Dolihner.

Elevation versus speed profile

Although the details are not accurate, the general elevation trend echoes the actual run. I start about a 100 meters above sea level, descend to sea level, and then return to 100 meters above sea level. The speed data seems overly optimistic.

Time and distance data

The third screen has a variety of numbers. The calories burned is rather meaningless, and the maximum speed is the result of loss and regain of signal. 18.09 kph is sheer fantasy – the spike can be seen on the earlier chart.

To say one went for an hour run does not have the sense of documentary reality that the LG screen shots convey. Underneath the images is a KMZ file with universal date time stamps, coordinates, and altitudes – some 3000 rows of data, of numbers:

<gx:coord>158.203917 6.954549 114.19999694824219</gx:coord>

The 3000 rows of numbers feel, to a numerophile, to be even more real than the images. Images can be photoshopped; generating 1500 coherent, correctly geolocated date-time-longitude-latitude-height in meters data points is a far more daunting task. Easier to just run the route and collect the data. And a lot more fun.

Near the end of the day ask yourself two questions. Have I seen any interesting numbers today? Did I run today? Did you?

Spectator paparazzi

I am a spectator paparazzi. That is, I take pictures of those who watch the stars. In the past the audience was an anonymous mass, and certainly the modern mega-paid mega-star is built on the wallets of those anonymous millions who watch. One went to see the stars play and did not expect to be seen, possibly did not want to be seen. The social media generation is different. They want to see the action, the game, the stars, but they also want to know who they know who was there watching the action. Which of my friends was at the game? Were they styling? Who was jumping up, dancing, singing, and shouting?

Reloliza Saimon
Reloliza Saimon, athlete, track star, traditional photographic subject in sports

I go to the games to take pictures of both the action and the spectators. I may ask for permission, explicitly or implicitly. The latter happens when I point my lens at a duo, trio, or more often a quad and they immediately smile, pose, and throw shaka and peace symbols.

Spectators including Mary Alexander
Spectators who know me providing implicit permission with warm smiles

The pictures are not for me. They are for their friends and family abroad. Children who long to see their mother, fathers who have not seen their son in a long time, friends who want to see another friend’s face. A phone call lets them hear their voice, but mom and dad are always, “We’re fine,” whether or not they are actually fine. A photograph is reassuring – seeing dad is a little older but still looks strong is reassuring to a son or daughter working  overseas.


In the past I had, at most, thirty-six 35 millimeter film shots to work with. I rarely had spare film or budget to take more than thirty-six images. In late 1997 I acquired a Sony digital camera that permitted my first experimentation with the world of digital photography. The camera I carry today can store up to 17000 photographs at the resolutions I work at. I can simply shoot continuously, or at least until both of my batteries are dead.

A mother and her Pohnpei state athlete daughter
A mother and her Pohnpei state athlete daughter

The medium by which photographs are shared has changed as well. Newspaper articles might include a single image. A photographer had to catch the single most iconic instant for that news story. Magazines might feature a spread of ten to twelve photos for an article. A photographic team might take hundreds of photos, sometimes thousands, culling through the images for the ten or twelve really magical images. For every jaw-dropping gorgeous National Geographic magazine photo there were a thousand images discarded.

The limits on image distribution and sharing have changed radically. FaceBook albums hold 200 images, all uploaded at no financial cost to the photographer. Today’s viewer of photographs does not want a single iconic image. They want an album of 200 photos they can scream through on their broad band connection, stopping and pausing only at that which catches their attention. And not just a single album. Multiple albums.

Kosraean women marching and singing in celebration of their runners
Kosraean women singing in the audience

I oblige the modern desire for a flood of images, providing “firehose” coverage to the extent that I can. I do not select images and the only editing I do is to delete blurry or inappropriate images. The rest get posted on line. No cropping, nothing. Raw feed, the more images the better. And yet some viewers have written saying, “More please!” This is also a characteristic of the social media generation. Sensory overload is not possible for a generation raised on iPads and xBoxes, a generation accustomed to being always on and connected.

Generation social media wants images of the event, those at the event, and lots of images. This is the brave new world of media.

Not only the off-islanders want more images, a local friend noted the same paucity of images. There are teams of photographers working the games, but the photo galleries appearing on line on sites covering the games often mimic a magazine. Articles include a single image. Photo galleries are nine to ten selected images. None of these teams is operating in the “shoot everything, post everything” mode, nor can they. One team of photographers is a youth media team who are being taught to capture iconic images, to select images, to be shooters and editors. Images are cropped and rebalanced to shine after the fact. The firehose photographer has to crop the image before they shoot. Whatever is in the frame at the time of the photo stays in the frame.

There are other differences. The newspaper and magazine photographer expects and deserves credit, if not also remuneration, for their images. For the professional, photography is part of their professional life. The pro gun usually includes a signature watermark in the image. One photographer in these games puts their watermark across the middle of the image as if their name is the star of the image. Spectator paparazzi may be relatively unknown, and if known, they are typically not known for being photographers. They may lack any photographic skills. They shoot everything and often post everything, including really blurry shots from low end cell phone cameras.

When I shot one image of a volunteer and her friend, her friend told me to be sure the image gets put on FaceBook. The volunteer turned to the friend with a puzzled look. The friend explained that I was the guy putting up all those albums from the games. She seemed incredulous, she found it hard to believe the images were being taken by me. She knew of me, but had no idea I was the one taking the images.

I post my images in albums with the privacy set to public – in other words, no privacy. This allows my 2500 plus friends and acquaintances to freely share my albums with their friends, and thence on to third and fourth connections. The albums do not expire at the periphery of my friends or friends of friends. No restrictions. Images get downloaded and then re-uploaded by others, and this makes me happy. I do not own my images. If anyone owns the image, the owners are the people in the image. I only captured some photons of light in transit at a particular instant in time. I own nothing more than the camera.

Medal bearers
Medal bearers

Another difference is that for the professional images are art, to be seen and appreciated but not necessarily not interacted with. Most professional, corporate, and institutional photographers post photos with tagging disabled. There are often legal reasons for disabling tagging. The spectator paparazzi is all about tagging and connecting. Social connectivity and interactivity are primary goals of the social media photographer. If a tree falls in an empty forest it makes no sound, if a photograph has no tags and comments then the photograph fails to exist in a social sense. The more tags and comments, the better the photograph, regardless of whether the photograph is artistically worthy or not. An exquisite photograph with no comments, no tags, and no shares, is a social media failure. A crummy, blurry, unbalanced shot with a plethora of comments, tags, and multiple shares is a success. Photo quality is irrelevant, photo connectivity is everything for the social media photographer.

Family photo opportunity
Family photo opportunity – popular on social media

Not only is tagging allowed and actively encouraged, but the social media photographer befriends all comers. The judicious use of groups such as acquaintances, close friends, family, and other groups helps keep the social media photographer’s wall from being swamped by information of no meaning or use.

Photographing the photographers
Photographing the photographers

I also know that if anyone points a camera at me, I have to strike a pose, look my best. I cannot hide behind my lens. I am fair game in the spectator paparazzi photo firefights. I also always try to photograph the photographers when I can. To make a sweeping over-generalization, sports photographers are usually so focused getting the action picture that they are rather oblivious to everything else around them that is not action, including, and maybe especially, other photographers. They have to be focused to get the iconic shot on goal, the moment at which the game was won.

There may be a difference in equipment. Using a long telephoto lens on a single lens reflex photographic body to take what are essentially portrait pictures is intimidating up close, creepy when done at extreme range. The little point and shoot I use requires that I get up close and personal to get a good FaceBook tag worthy photo. I cannot get the stop action photo of the critical moment in the game. The distances are typically too great.

I have one other asset that is useful, at least here on Pohnpei. My face. Having lived here for 22 years and having taught over 3000 some students I am fairly widely recognized and known. In almost any crowd I will know someone. I am an elder in a society that respects elders, a member of the community. My children were born and raised in Pohnpei and Kosrae. People know me and many know that I post photos to FaceBook, sometimes people ask to be photographed. Other times I know relatives abroad who enjoy pictures of a particular person and so I know who the photo will have to be shared to. And some, seeing me coming, hide like a rock star avoiding publicity. Athletes have to expect to be photographed when in action, the spectators have no such expectation. When an event is open to the public, free of entry charge, and held in a public facility, personal photographic privacy may be violated even if inadvertently.

Hiding from the paparazzi
Back row hides from the paparazzi

I use the word paparazzi in part to reflect the gray areas in which I sometimes operate. A granddaughter in North Carolina might ask, “If you get a chance, take a picture of my grandfather.” Now I may know that grandpa would prefer not to be photographed if given a choice. Yet he is present at a kamadipw at which I am taking pictures. Do I avoid shots in which he is present or get the granddaughter a picture that makes her happy? Add in that grandpa does not use FaceBook and the granddaughter does – so if I snag a shot with him in the frame, he will not realize he was photographed and shared via FaceBook. Who’s desire for happiness trumps? By Pohnpei rules the elder, but wherein he is unaware there seems to be less harm done by getting the granddaughter the image she so desires.

Eight days has produced eight albums and just over 1500 images, none of them worthy of “publishing,” all of them “published” on social media. Tag, like, and comment rates push upwards of a hundred an hour. This is the new media order in social media – quantity over quality. Photos of everyone and everything. Viewed and forgotten in the same instant, as ephemeral as a conversation and yet important to feeling connected for those who view them.

There will certainly long be a role for the professional photographer and the work that they do. I argue only that there is a new genre of photographers who play by different rules for different goals, differences made possible by social media. Maybe call it koinonikophotography, although anthrophotography rolls off the tongue better.

If you see me roaming an event, either strike a smile and a pose to let me know you are open to being photographed, or duck, cover, and run to avoid being caught on digital by a spectator paparazzi.


With age there is comfort in stability and the lack of change. At some point in life changes are not usually for the medically better. Cholesterol tends to rise with age as does blood sugar, uric acid levels, and overall body fat. One moves from planning on running times getting better to hoping that they will at least stay the same.

Habits and preferences become somewhat engrained. I have run in ASICS shoes for over two decades. My earliest shoes still carried the Tiger moniker. Over the years I have not been completely averse to change. I tried and liked Avia back in the day when they introduced the cantilever design. I have also learned that change can be threatening. A pair of New Balance shoes in 1996 took the blame, fairly or not, for a fall term of Plantars fasciitus. I tried and liked Mizuno wave plate based shoes in the oughts.

I had always returned to ASICS line shoes. In the 1990s I favored their motion control monsters – Gel MC line and subsequent Gel Evo line. As the years of running passed I found I also liked the GT-2000 series, especially the odd numbered decadals, 2010, 2030, 2050, 2070.  I still have a pair of 3010 and 3030 in my stable along with a pair of the new edition of the GT-2000. Decades of running without injury in a particular line of shoes leads to a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” logic.

Those same decades of running have also taught me that old habits sometimes blind one to better ways. Life is like that. One can spend years working out what works best for one, then one tends to stick to that one way without question. Change becomes threatening at some point in life.

Still, I am a afficionado of technology. And those same two decades of running have taught me that EVA foam dies hard. Literally. The midsole of a running shoe loses cushioning, rebound, and flexibility with age. The foam compresses and collapses, the bubbles tear and rip at a microscopic level.

I was trying to figure out how to order the new ASICS GT-3000 2, the odd and confusingly numbered successor to the GT-3000 which appears to have succeeded the GT-3030. I have to suppose that the numbering sequence is some form of ill-conceived marketing manoever. While wandering around sites I stumbled on someone complaining that their rather expensive Adidas shoes had a styrofoam midsole. That piqued my interest, primarily because sytrofoam could not work well as a midsole material.

I had recently learned of the wind tunnel work done by Adidas to get the World Cup Brazuca to behave more like a 32 panel soccer ball than the 2010 World Cup Jabulani ball. The Jabulani “knuckled” at too high a speed, up near penalty kick speeds, leaving players frustrated by the unpredictable ball paths at high speeds. Serious money was spent to get the Brazuca to knuckle and float at speeds close to a tradiational soccer ball and to not soak up water in the tropical heat of Brazil. Adidas had to know better than to use styrofoam in a running shoe.

I quickly learned that the material was not styrofoam but a material made from thermoplastic polyurethane via a process that resulted in the styrofoam appearance. This was a new midsole technology for running shoes, and runners who tried the shoes were impressed by the ride. Although the price was a step up for running shoes for me, I only buy shoes at a rate of about a pair a year. After more research I decided that a flat-footer with a history of being an over-pronator belonged in the Adistar Boost series rather than the Energy Boost.

Adidas Adistar Boost
Adidas Adistar Boost

Getting shoes shipped to the outer edge of paradise is always a challenge, Pohnpei is a long way east of Eden. About eleven time zones give or take a zone. Many of the online shoe supplying options including Amazon and RoadRunnerSports could not land an Adistar Boost onto the island. Of late I have found that Running Warehouse is about the only supplier willing to ship to the rock.

Heel detail on Adistar
Heel detail on Adistar

I knew and expected the snuggly glove like fit of the neoprene like mesh Tech Fit upper, and have found that to be a plus. I went with the same size I use in ASICS – an eleven. Technically my foot is a 9.5 to 10, but in running shoes I am fairly consistently an eleven. And while I am perhaps too accustomed to running in died harder old EVA soles, I have put on new shoes enough times in my running life to know the difference a new pair makes. The TPU Boost really does provide more energy return and rebound, even for an old joggler. Whether or not the science seen in a video is applicable to running, the shoes delivered. I was flying down the road like a Douglas Spaulding in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. New shoes, new gear, can bring out the inner child in one.

I have often hoped that I would not become comfortably numb and wake up one day wondering, “Well…How did I get here?” I know that one path away from letting the days go by is to be open to change, being willing to break out of the ruts and habits of a lifetime. Even in small details such as shoes. I know a colleague who wears only Converse shoes and has worn them to the exclusion of all other shoes for over four decades. He became rather concerned when the company filed for bankruptcy – the thought of having to find another shoe to wear was a matter of great concern. Nike swept in and bought the company, continuing to produce the only shoes my colleague will wear.

Daughter swimming the butterfly

I sat by the swimming pool this evening and watched my daughter swim laps in preparation for the 2014 Micronesian Games next week. She is fast and confident in the water, sure of herself. The same sense of capability she exhibited when she first began to walk. Although she had learned to stand, she would stand still and then sit back down, never taking a single step. Then one fine Friday, the 24th of January 2003, she stood up on the porch and began walking around. No falling down, no stumbling.

030126shanwalk01 030126shanwalk02 030126shanwalk03 030126shanwalk04 030126shanwalk05 030126shanwalk06

The next day I took her to the college, put her down, and she stood up and began walking around. Now she is a swimming competitively. When she does run, her stride far exceeds mine and I have to churn my short legs like some hamster on a hamster wheel to keep up with her. Children embody change, children teach their parents to accept change – although not without a struggle.

Daughter running

Kolonia is changing. New buildings, bigger buildings. Roads and intersections being widened. Change is all around me as I run. Places that were verdant forest or stands of swamp grass are being cleared for homes and buildings. At times I yearn for yesteryear, wanting back the wilder vistas. My running is increasingly citified by changes along the road. Running that might be slightly faster and lighter footed than yesterday, boosted by Boost underfoot.


“That’s a stupid thing to do in the road!” called out an obese forty-something gentleman as the taxi passed me out by the Nett municipal offices. He was right. Running and juggling – joggling – in roads with no shoulders is stupid. Although being called stupid by an overweight, out-of-shape forty-something on an island of diabetes, heart attacks, and high blood pressure left me wondering whether the gentleman was in any position to judge the wisdom of specific  lifestyle choices.

The swimming pool beyond dusk

Darkness has fallen at the pool. The sound of young men challenging to each other as they  rack off push-ups rolls out into the humid night air. The language is local, the message is universal. Young men pushing themselves to be the toughest. Young women with the broad shoulders that the butterfly brings walk along the edge of the pool. Out of the gloom appears a more slender figure of a younger swimmer, my daughter. At up to a decade younger than some of the older swimmers, she seems almost out of place. As if a middle school student wandered into a collegiate athletics camp. Yet she seems comfortable and at home, undaunted by the age difference. Driven to swim by her own internal fires and unfazed by the impending competition. She is amazing.

On my way back through Kolonia town a young man with his hair dyed carrot orange  called out, “Wonderful! Awesome!” This also surprised me as what I usually hear is “Doh me ehu!” or “Give me my ball!” Not that I took any child’s ball, just that in a world where everything is shared he who has three balls must share with those who have none. Therefore one of the balls I am using logically belongs to the child.

As I trundled up what was some ancient ridge line, now the main road through Kolonia, I wondered whether I was stupid, wonderful, awesome, or – most likely – none of the above. Entertaining, maybe. At least to the many children who call from cars, “Kilang ohlo!” Somewhere between childhood and adulthood a running juggler shifts from being an amazing sight to being stupid.


Thirty years ago this spring I was invited to a Center for Assessment and Stateside Training (CAST) as a prelude to a possible invitation to join Peace Corps Ghana. I had put on my application that I would serve anywhere but Africa. In 1983 I knew only that there was a drought affecting a wide swath of Africa. When I get stressed out I tend to eat, I thought that a drought and food shortage might be stressful and that I would have the wrong reaction in the midst of a food shortage. So I naively put that I would serve anywhere but Africa.

When I filled out the application I was not seriously considering Peace Corps, I was looking at a number of possible post-graduation options and at a job fair day in 1983 I had filled out the application along with many other inquiries. The “recruiter” noted that I checked childhood allergies and said that would probably knock me out of consideration. The months went by and I never heard back, so I did not think again about the forms I had filled out.

Then in 1984 an invitation to a CAST for Ghana came in. The CAST would be a week long session of evaluation and assessment in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, at the end of which Peace Corps would decide whether to invite a candidate and a candidate would decide whether to accept that invitation. Ghana had received volunteer groups every year except 1983. By 1983 Ghana was considered a difficult posting with a high early termination rate. No new volunteers were sent in 1983. Usually a new group overlaps a pre-existing group by a year, but with no 1983 group and the 1982 group finishing up in 1984, the 1984 group would have few other volunteers in country.  The CAST was intended to pre-select a group that was ready for the challenges that Ghana was thought to pose.

I had no real intention of going to Africa, but I thought a free week’s vacation in Harper’s Ferry would be fun and so I traveled to Washington DC and then on up to Harper’s Ferry for the CAST.

The assessors at the Harper’s Ferry CAST were, as I recall, all Americans. I do not now recall clearly, but my recollection is that some, if not all, were returned Ghana volunteers. There was one Ghanaian among the assessors, the in-country nurse for Peace Corps Ghana, Clara Donkor.

Clara decided I was trouble based on my being a Kwaku and informed me that she was adopting me as her son. When she did that I realized that if I was accepted into the Ghana program at the end of the CAST, I would at least have to go to Ghana out of respect for this woman I had just met.

I remember Harper’s Ferry as a week of group cooperation games and occasional mind games. When we were asked what lasting impact we hoped to have in Ghana I replied that I hoped to leave behind at least a pile of rocks. I do not recall how that went over, but I did make that pile of rocks in Akropong. Just last month I very intentionally piled up some rocks in area where I was planting some local medicinal plants. Wherever I go, I make sure I pile up a few rocks, my homage to that commitment I made in Harper’s Ferry. I have changed the lives of so many rocks over the years!

Although I had thought I might be rejected by the assessors, I suspect Clara put in her support for me and I found myself invited to the next stage of training in Mount Carroll, Illinois.

Dana in Mount Carroll
Mount Carroll


In Mount Carroll a different team of returned Ghana volunteers gave us a crash course in teacher training with a focus on the educational systems of Ghana. There was also a fellow from South Africa who had a role in the training. The training used a site that had been the home of Shimer College at one time.

After stateside training in Mount Carroll, the group flew to Accra for an initial week of in-country training, followed by village based training in Akrofufu, Eastern Region, and then another round of teacher training in Nsawam. The training was so long that at least one candidate terminated due to the length of training. Another volunteer terminated in the first week because conditions in country were “too dirty” for her.

I recall watching Mars, prominent in the southern night sky in Mount Carroll. That first night in Ghana when I looked for Mars, the planet was not there. We were outside performing libation, but my eyes were on the southern skies. Where was Mars? The change in longitude meant a shift in time, but I knew that should not affect the position. I tilted my head back and looked straight up. Mars. Straight overhead. I knew in an instant I must be near the equator. That was the moment I realized I was no longer in Kansas.

A day or two in country, I recall joining an excursion out towards Winneba, happily eating and drinking whatever I was offered. By the fourth day I was hit hard by shigella dysentery. The cramping was intense. Clara prescribed Donatel but the assistant nurse heard Tylenol, which did nothing for the insane cramps that hit every nine minutes. I eventually moved into the dark and rather dismal Accra elementary school bathroom, spending a night on the seatless porcelain toilet in the dark, in too much pain and discomfort to seek help. That experience was so powerful that years later when I had amoebic dysentery I ignored it for a month. The cramps were no where near as bad and I could could for far longer than nine minutes before needing to find a toilet.

The rest of the volunteers went on to Akrofufu for village based training. I was down on the order of 18 pounds at that point. I do not think they expected to see me again, I was a probable medical termination. Clara moved me into the Peace Corps office and I recovered. I did not want to be medically terminated because there might be times during a journey out of country that I would not be able to get to a toilet fast enough.

Before I left Accra I met with a doctor who informed me that the shigella strain I had contracted had tested as resistant to the anti-biotics available in country at that time. He essentially congratulated me on recovering on my own.


I think some of the other volunteers might have been somewhat surprised when I showed up in Akrofufu. I, on the other hand, felt rather bullet proof. I had survived a dysentery that was not treatable, why quit now?

Host family Akrofufu
Host family Akrofufu

Summer 1985, inspired in part by a Ghanaian French teacher who had traveled the Volta region with only a change of underwear, I traveled in a portion of the Eastern region for a few days wearing only my Ghanaian cloth and carrying nothing. No backpack, no change of clothes, wearing only my cloth, my teacher’s identification card in one pocket, some Cedis in my other pocket.

I stayed with relatives of my roommate for a night, and then headed up into an area off the main routes, into the hills to the east of Koforidua, north of Nkurakan. I wound up spending the night in a small village with a family who insisted I sleep in the only bed in the house.

The next day I was asked to teach at the local elementary school, and I did so.

I headed back towards Akropong the next day.

Although my journey was brief, I have never again traveled so light, so minimally. I also remember feeling comfortable. That was one of those moments in life when one has a new understanding of oneself. Walking along a road I had never walked upon before, wearing only a traditional cloth, carrying nothing, and feeling completely at home. Feeling that this is the most wonderful place to be at that moment.  In the one place I had once said I did not want to go.

As a student in elementary and secondary school I had failed to learn French (elementary school), German (middle school), and Spanish (high school). In response to some question a foreign language teacher asked, I said that I had no plans to go anywhere outside of the United States, would never need to function in a foreign language, and had no desire to function in a foreign language nor in a foreign culture. Walking along that red clay back road above Nkurakan I changed everything.

Shanalin in Ghana shirt
Shanalin in Ghana shirt

Thirty years ago I began the process that has led to a life lived abroad.

Sakau on the brain

My colleague hovered unsteadily near the office coffee pot. He appeared a bit more haggard than usual. I asked why and he said that he had stopped drinking sakau (Piper methysticum, Pacific island kava)  for three nights and had developed a headache. Tylenol only briefly knocked down the headache, and the headache was interfering with his ability to sleep.

I know that headache. And the sleep issue is not due to the headache – they are both withdrawal symptoms that hit around the 48 to 72 hour mark post-sakau. Sakau alters some part of the brain’s chemistry. My hunch is that sakau either artificially supplies a needed brain chemical, or that sakau blocks uptake of a brain chemical resulting in a decrease in production of that brain chemical. Either way, out at around 72 hours, give or take 24, the effect of the sakau wears off and the brain is either short of a chemical or out of balance in some other way.

A dull, heavy, headache is a symptom with which I am all too familiar. The broken sleep is another pattern with which I am well acquainted. In the wake of some viciously strong Kosraean sakau January 2012, I developed insomnia. I drank on a Tuesday night, on Thursday night I was woken up by dark dreams, agitated, excited, high heart rate. I would battle that insomnia for two weeks in January, unable to get anything more than a couple hours of stage one sleep – no deep sleep, no REM sleep.

At that time I had not yet sussed out that the sakau was causative. Two years later I am certain. I tried Unisom and melatonin back in 2012 – but they only made things worse, echoing some of what I was reading on line about anxiety. Sleep aids not only do not work for the anxious, they sometimes make everything worse.

I went to our family doctor and he suggested I try a couple Xanax. I went home and looked up what Xanax was supposed to treat and the potential side effects. I tossed the Xanax out. The Xanax, however, led me to learn about generalized anxiety disorder and the difficulties those who suffer from anxiety experience. Material written by those suffering from anxiety was spot on in describing what I was experiencing. A recent article by Scott Stossel on Surviving Anxiety caught me off guard when he also used a term that I too had thought, “existential dread.” That pervasive and unshakeable fear that is an entity unto itself.

The key to my recovery was to take nothing including no sakau and to get back into a regular running routing.  Even with no sakau and running, I would remain anxious for another week, unable to come down out of the “mode” I was in where sleep was not possible.

Since then I have been paying much closer attention to the link between sakau and my brain. I know now that for me, third night post sakau I will have dark dreams that give me broken sleep. If I drink too much, I could trigger a full blown insomnia cycle. The amount that triggers me is small. I can drink no more than a single cup of sakau. In other words, if I “get the feeling” then I will have broken sleep and possibly insomnia that will run from the third night to about the sixth night. So I have to avoid sakaula as the sense of death and darkness that comes with the “mode” on the third night is too awful.

Since I do not “crave” sakau the way a nicotine addict craves ciggies, I cannot say that sakau is addictive, just that it has a rough withdrawal.

I strongly suspect that because brain chemistry is involved as everyone has a different brain reaction to sakau. I also know that this is a result of long term use, possibly at times abuse, of sakau. I have been drinking for twenty years, typically once a week but at times every night. I had no problems for the first ten years of drinking. I am also keenly aware that there are aging brain effects that I cannot deconfound from my sakau consumption. I am a study with a sample size of one.

I have noted, however, that many veteran older drinkers throttle back their consumption or quit. No one talks about this as sakau consumption is tied into the concept of being an ohlen Pohnpei. A real man. And those who do drink regularly almost seem to be unconsciously and intuitively aware of the third night brain effects. Many drinkers drink on a  Friday-Sunday-Wednesday schedule. Redoping  the brain before the absence of the effect of sakau chemicals hit.

I drank without issues in the 1990s. Even every night binges of heavy drinking did not disturb my brain chemistry significantly. In hindsight, however, I now recognize brief spells of post-binge sleeplessness circa 2001 as a sign of developing brain chemistry issues.

I rarely drink now, and when I do, I throttle way back. I wanted to provided company to a colleague on a Friday night, so I drank a cup and a half. And a small cup at that. I barely sip from the ngarangar when it is presented that way, and I prefer the cup where I can better control my consumption rate. I also held to my holiday running binge of daily joggling. Still, Sunday night I woke up at three in the morning after some sort of dark dream and settled back to sleep only slowly. Could be all in my head, but two years of experimenting have me convinced that this is simply a withdrawal impact. The third night I will fall asleep without difficulty, but wake up suddenly from dreams filled with dread and foreboding.

I have been playing with the parameters over the past many months. If I drink x amount, what can be done to minimize the third night impact? I have not found a silver bullet. Exercise helps, but does not prevent the third night broken sleep. Flushing with fluids does not seem to help appreciably. Eating before sakau and attempting to buffer may help, but only insofar as it decreases the sensation of sakaula. Ultimately, if one is sakaula, then one is changing one’s brain chemistry.

I know that true generalized anxiety disorder sufferers who attempt to get off of a Xanax dependency can take up to six months for their brain to again produce sufficient levels of the brain chemicals that make one feel functional. The brain heals only slowly – the centers that produce the chemicals are slow to return to production in the wake of a loss of externally supplied brain chemical.

Sakau may have a similar effect even in moderate and irregular doses. There are not a lot of studies of people on high doses of kavalactones over multi-decadal periods. The work of Dr. Balick suggests that Pohnpeian sakau is unusually strong not because of the plant but because of the use of the polysaccharides found in the keleu.

I have been on a running binge this Christmas, trying to run every day. I put in a short and fast 24 minute round trip to Spanish wall on the most recent Friday I went to sakau. Saturday I ran for 40 minutes on a treadmill followed by 15 minutes in a sauna, Sunday I put in a one hour and 53 minute run and juggle under sunny skies. I wondered if the sauna might help sweat out the chemical issue.

Sunday night I did wake up at 03:14 in the wake of a night terror, but by using some of the thinking my reading on cognitive behavioral therapy taught me two year ago, I was able to calm my elevated heart rate and eventually go back to sleep. Generally speaking, if I can recalm on that third night I seem to avoid the hyper-vigilant, sleepless mode.

I still drink sakau, in part because sakau is intertwined with my social life. In part because I recognize that doing things that scare me is good for me and prevents the over development of a comfort zone. In part to continue to test the parameters that influence sakau withdrawal. Although sakau is not addictive in the craving sense, I have a hunch that some military vets with possible PTSD issues here use sakau to handle their anxiety, and then get locked into a nightly cycle when they find that they are sleepless without sakau. Sakau definitely knocks down the high arousal state of a sleeplessly anxious person for a good 24 hours. And with little to no hangover, sakau allows one to be a very highly functioning person.

The amounts of sakau I drink are pitifully small now and I drink only on a rare occasion. 

Sakau should be studied in the treatment of anxiety – a lifetime on sakau is probably better than a lifetime on a mix of benzodiazepines. The side effects appear to be far less pronounced. That said, a mix of cognitive behavioral therapy and vigorous daily exercise are probably a better path to working on healing the anxious brain.

Oatmeal and Tattoos

At this time of year the sun sets early and straight. Straight down into the road that runs  from the state hospital to Dausokele bridge. Homeward bound the sun is a solar blast furnace that blinds me and my juggled tennis balls. Sweat seeps into my eyes and burns. I know only joy as I run into that setting sun. The sun sets me free.

On the return from Dausokele I can either turn left at 4TY and head home or extend along the waterfront road to Mesenieng. There I can opt to turn for home and head up to Spanish wall or extend again to the airport.

The left turn brings me up past an indigenous ink art salon. Tattoos are a part of custom, culture, and tradition out here. They were and are a part of identity, and both men and women often sport traditional and modern tattoos. I do not have any tattoos, do not want tattoos. Running is my tattoo.

Dana running and juggling, joggling.

Thirty-five years of running have left a mark that is underneath my skin. Not topical. And no less permanent than a tattoo. I do not look like much as I am an LSD runner – Long Slow Distance. A few hidden muscles than are only hinted at when my foot contacts pavement. Bones that are slightly stronger from hundreds of thousands of impacts over three decades. On the inside I am a runner.

Insides and outsides are important. Some people are one thing on the outside and another on the inside. While running and juggling I am watching the road, watching cars. An eastbound car at Angie’s swings a hard and fast left in towards Mapusi. The young female driver’s gaze is fixed forward, she does not look left or right. She dare not. Her father is very strict conservative religious hypocrite. I gather he has forbidden the daughters from marrying, and the one that did was ostracized. The single sisters can only visit their sister in wedlock when the father leaves the island, and then only with care not to be detected. Forgiveness is in short supply in that family, despite that being the purported core of the faith. The outside one meets in the street is not the same as the inside the daughters know all too well. Extreme authoritarian fathers were possibly a reason young island women may have suggested to their young lovers, “Let’s get in a canoe and go on a long and dangerous journey across the open ocean in hopes of finding a new place to live.” Run, runaway across the water. The worst that could happen is that the two lovers would be lost at sea, becoming the stuff of legends.

As I run I duck in and out of stores in search of oatmeal – that breakfast treat which I enjoy not for the claimed cholesterol busting qualities but rather for the gluten-free nature of pure oatmeal. The island had actually run out of oatmeal, although not likely as a result of some sudden rise in popularity of the pasty porridge.  Although my run for the oatmeal would end in failure to find the flecks, information would later reach me of a cache in a small store on the waterfront.

Runs end on a steady climb into a final uphill, a last push into Dolihner. Homes where runs end on an uphill have been good to me in life thus far. A last piece of rising terrain on which to test what I have left in the tank. Uphills have always been my friend out on the road. For an LSD runner an uphill is a chance to gain ground – I move at the same slow speed on flat terrain, downhill, and uphill. My velocity is essentially independent of the slope.

Next weekend there is a diabetes day run from the hospital. In a nation ranked number one on the planet in 2012 for the rate of diabetes, the marks that diabetes makes on the body are an all too common sight here. The missing limbs, the dialysis scars. Diabetes is a terrible tattoo. Running away from diabetes is literally possible – run. Run long. Longer than an hour. Run hard. Run until you can talk but cannot sing. Run daily. Works amazingly well at preventing diabetes. Besides, if you can run faster and farther than the hospital staff, then they can’t catch you to cut stuff off. Or at least that is my theory.

The runs that start at the hospital are usually run into Kolonia, a loop around midtown, and back out to the hospital. The route is a favorite of mine primarily because of the rolling terrain that the route features. Plus the finish line is at the emergency bay of the hospital – what better place to end a run? “Doctor, my heart is pounding and I am out of breath…”

Of choices, promises, and paths

When I run I get to make choices. Which way I choose to go. How fast I choose to run. When I will choose to turn-around. Where I will choose to pick up a CapriSun or Kool-Aid juice pack for rehydration. Running is filled with choices. Sometimes life includes choices. Sometimes life does not.

Distant hills

A long term resident and friend is in a distant place tonight, headed to a new post far from a place that has been a home to him for decades. His departure was not directly his choice, but rather a result of a commitment he made years ago. Some have suggested he should set aside that commitment, others have petitioned those who might have the authority to permit him to remain here. He has remained quiet and honored that commitment.

Life sometimes asks us to walk a path we do not want to walk, to be lead where we do not want to go. A path we did not choose. A change in circumstances, illness, tragedy, or a loss that is too painful to bear.


For the fateful faithful, God’s plan. For the anarchic faithless, “shit happens.” Neither makes the change, the path, comprehensible. Neither is an explanation. Some things are without explanation.

I realize that for the friend who is far from here tonight that men have sent him to this new place, not God. The point is not the cause but the commitment. He is going where his feet do not want to go because he is honoring a vow. The one choice we can make amid the incomprehensible chaos of life.

Another friend has said the same to me, “This is a promise I want to prove to myself that I can keep until I die. I want to know that I can do that.” The point is not whether the choice is an optimal choice, the point is the commitment. A word, an ethereal promise ultimately to oneself.

We keep promises and hold to vows as a way of creating a small island of stability in the chaotic void. In those small places there is safety, security, and a chance for love to flourish. We go where our feet do not want to go because we choose to do so.

Liberation Day Half-Marathon

Liberation Day “half-marathon”! No pics – no one in the fam remembered to bring a cam. Ran 18.6 km in 2:02 at four in the afternoon. Conditions were as good as they get – high humidity but good cloud cover interspersed with light rain showers. Not as conditioned as I should be, but a variation of Diana Nyad’s words echoed in my head as I ran out into U and back to the state track: Never ever give up, you [really] are never too old to chase a dream [even to enjoy a run with teen and twenty-somethings in a Liberation Day long run], and [running] is a team effort. None of us who ran could have run without the support of the FSMNOC, Pohnpei Sports Council, and especially the encouragement of Sweeter Daniel, George Steven, Rendy Germinaro, and all of those who worked the water stops. We all won today. My sincere thanks to everyone who supported the runners today. I have not seen the finishing order, but Maklino Ardos running for Nett was well out in front deep in U. Kitti fielded a single runner who came in eleventh – some pale looking fellow who ran under the names Souwel en lempwel, Dioan; Oaulik en Pahnais, Wone.