The distance runner is a breed apart. The long hours of training for an event are not spent on a pitch in the companionship of teammates. Many days no one knows whether you trained. Or not.
Rainy windy evenings the only pitch is that of darkness. The only companion your breath and heartbeat. The world dissolving into a gray blur, only your own focus on your effort remaining sharp.
There is an oft spoken about loneliness, moving too fast to connect with anyone even should one happen to pass someone. A disconnectedness even while running amidst people one knows. There is always that sense of being in a moving void, fully present, yet completely absent.
Nothing external compels a distance runner. There is no team to let down, only a singular self. Out on the road there exists only the individual will to run.
Although I returned to a written reprimand (non-attendance graduation) and docked pay (missed six non-teaching work days), three weeks off the rock in December and January refreshed me to my bones. By not consciously thinking about teaching for twenty-one days I find I have some new curricular ideas and a reservoir of energy with which to work.
Vacation, as in traveling to somewhere distant, is a curious activity. There is little to suggest that traveling into unfamiliar places with unknown dangers would have been a survival benefit to our ancient ancestors. Staying home almost always had to have been safer. Yet the deep allure of travel is present across cultures.
Micronesians arrived in these islands on voyaging canoes, long journeys over open ocean. That first canoe, or canoes, had to be traveling uncharted waters. The question “Are we there yet?” as unanswerable as “Where are we going?”
For those on a voyaging canoe the journey was only partially calculated risk, a gamble that what lay beyond the horizon was worth the risk. Yet as modern voyaging canoes have shown, capable navigators could hold courses and make return voyages. Navigators had skills in finding islands in the vast Pacific, reading swells and clouds. Those sailing lived off the sea as they traveled.
Arrival at a new island that was large enough to support life had to be thrilling. The new island would look strange and unfamiliar, and that would make the arrival all the more exciting. That aspect of travel is still there for my tropical island raised children. The “islands” they visited are not just different, they are exotic beyond their imagination.
One can see the Cloud Gate in a computer image, the skyline reflected by the gleaming curved surfaces. Being there is viscerally different. The brain suddenly comprehending the size of the Cloud Gate while not comprehending the scale of the buildings just across Michigan Avenue. The sound of the city, of traffic, distant sirens ever-present, cold air whipping across Centennial Park and past one’s ears.
Our brains adjust to the daily world around us and eventually treat the sights and sounds of home as background noise. Home is rarely exotic on a daily basis. For those who commute past a wonder of the world, the sight is a daily occurrence, an ordinary event. For children who regularly see the Cloud Gate, the structure is far less remarkable than for children raised on a rain forest island of coconut palms.
For a child raised in Alaska, snow is a given. For a child raised in Micronesia, a first meeting with snow is beyond magical. In that moment of discovery and joy one’s brain is completely flooded with wonder. That sense of wonder is contagious, even an adult can feel that sense of seeing the world anew.
Ancient humans undoubtedly traveled primarily out of necessity. The need for a new food opportunities, uninhabited lands for ever-expanding families, or to escape a deteriorating life situation. Survival sometimes favored those brave enough to move, to abandon the place in which they knew how to survive. The new environment presented new challenges and required a sharpness of mind. Today travel is recreational, but the sharpness of mind, the attention the new environment requires, is still there.
In that absorption of the mind with the new surroundings is a dropping away of the mental load of the daily ordinary which was left behind. The brain gets to do a reboot and reconfigure, a refresh of the brain circuitry. Upon return from the journey, the mind retains the benefits of the refresh. There is a sense of being recharged and re-energized. While constant, continuous travel likely becomes mentally exhausting – travel would be the daily ordinary for such a person – for those of us resident for years in one place, travel can be refreshing in a very deep sense.
Shades of grays, muted dark browns, blacks are all I can see. Blurs that loom up and then rush past me. A twilight run in the forest on the shortest day of the year at 42 degrees North latitude.
The sun set two minutes before I hit the three kilometer loop through the woods and over the rolling fruitless zone prairie. A run racing the darkness down in the hollows. Forested ridge backs hide backside cliffs, the trail threading past them. In the gathering darkness widow makers loom over the trail, helping mark my path over the forest floor.
Amidst the trees I run at full open gait, time is against me. The dying of the light drives me ever harder in growing gloom.
At speed – alone in a chilling forest – I am on fire, my mind completely focused on the run at hand. Form is everything. Drag my feet for even a single stride and I pick up a branch with my foot. Tripping is not a useful option in darkness.
Sometimes you only have a single shot to get something right. Sometimes there is no second chance. Running reminds me of this. Running happens fast, raising children happens more slowly. There are still times in your relationship with your child when you have only a single shot at getting it right. At those times focus on placing your words as carefully as footfalls in a dark forest.
The run was not going particularly well. Pings and pangs in various odd and sundry leg muscles, no rhythm, no energy into the uphills. My tennis ball tosses lacked control, errant tosses being fumbled and lost to the ground. I was dragging bottom on the way home, still trying to find shards of shaft, pieces of power. As I headed up the final hill on my home stretch I saw a friend headed out on an evening run.
Despite my dysfunctioning form, I swung around to join him. As we headed down the hill I had struggled up, he noted that he was headed out for a run up Sokeh’s ridge. I had not run up that road, walked up a number of times, but never tried a run. The first section is a long, slow, climb up to a switchback. As we climbed I felt stronger and better than I had on the roads of Kolonia.
From the switchback up the road steps up the slope, like a treadmill gone way too high. I started at an uphill jog, and made it past the first couple gentle bends along the rock faces, but the hill eventually exceeded my ability to feed oxygen to my muscles, broke my pace, and I walked the final meters. Still, I felt fantastic, much better than at the end of my short little lower town loop right.
I had headed out the door to run a short out and back to Spanish Wall. I had no intention of seeing if I could run up to the top of the ridge. The presence of a fellow runner, however, caused me to push myself to see what I could do on a day when I was not running all that well. Good friends do that – they push us to do more, be more, reach farther. Good friends are encouragers. My thanks for the push I needed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Thirty years ago I began the process that has led to a life lived abroad.