The mighty race called Gigathlon

29 05 2012

Today in a month is the first day of Gigathlon 2012. For those of you who remember my heroic efforts at last year’s event, you will shake your heads and cry for me. For those of you who do not, here are the stories from before and after.

Gigathlon is a Swiss invention, and encompasses every hobby-athlete’s worst nightmare: five disciplines (swimming, running, mountain-biking, road cycling and inline skating), performed on two days (including two nights sleeping in a tent on a campground), in the midst of mountains. There are three categories: single (the serious nutsos), couple (similar nutso-potential, divided by two) and team of five (mostly sane, mostly rational individuals). I am a team-player and as you know, I skate.

Final equipment check before hitting the road

Gigathlon 2012 is, at first glance, a somewhat tamer version of last year’s event, where as a team, we climbed 2,500 more altitude-meters (8,000 feet) than Mount Everest is high. This summer’s event takes place in the Swiss midlands (as opposed to the Alps) and is, at least as far as the inline skater is concerned, seemingly civilized. It’s like they took last year’s two skate-legs and ironed them flat. But what the routes are lacking in altitude difference they make up in lateral distance. If I make it safe through the two days, I will have skated nearly 100 kilometers (60 miles) in less than 36 hours.

Take a moment to think about that because I don’t really want to.

My team this year comprises three women (road cyclist, runner and moi) and two men (mountain-biker and swimmer). We call ourselves the “Flying Five” and our bib number is 1984 (a very good year, for me at least). Our average age is, I’ll say, late-30ish. It just got bumped up a notch yesterday because I turned 42.

Last summer the skaters had the privilege of kicking off the event on both race days, giving me a wake-up call at 0-dark-30 two days in a row. While 4,000 other gigathletes were still snoring in their tents on the campground, visions of energy drinks dancing in their heads, we 1,000 or so skaters were busy tightening wheels by flashlight, strapping on protective equipment, lining up in front of the porta-potties and limbering up sore and aching muscles.

(Let’s just say I ain’t no great fan of camping.)

In this year’s race, “Urban Saturday” for me will begin at 4am. Again. Grrr. And off I go, for 52 kilometers (32.5 miles).

Yellow = skater, blue = swimmer, black = mountain-biker, red = road cyclist, green = runner.

At least I get to sleep in on Sunday, when I am the third of the five relay athletes in my team. I shall certainly be celebrating, on “Celebrating Sunday,” for another mere 40 more kilometers (25 miles).  Piece of cake.

Follow the yellow brick road…

The Flying Five aim to finish the race uninjured, and within the time limit (ie. daylight). I have taken Monday off from work, just in case we need a little longer than planned.

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White folks, a school and recess.

20 05 2012

One hundred pairs of wide brown eyes stared at us like we had just landed in their corner of Ivory Coast from the moon: Two women with pale skin, smiling.

The classroom.

These two strange-looking women were accompanied by a third woman, carrying a leather handbag, who looked like they themselves did, or rather like their mothers, just better dressed. And better fed.

We felt a bit like we were in a zoo: the grown-ups showed us what was there, in the classroom, and the hundred kids got to take a good long look at what had just walked in the door.

The question was only – which of us was the caged animal?

Perhaps they had seen white people like us before, but likely only men, and only in a position of power. A foreman on a rubber plantation where their parents worked as day-labor, or a buyer for the cocoa that their parents harvested on their smallholder farm. In both cases the white man determined what they would eat, and if they could afford to go to school, or to a doctor. Today or tomorrow. Or never.

The principal of the rural primary school about 150 kilometers east of Abidjan opened his doors wide for the visitors from far-away Europe. The children stood for us, bade us good morning in unison, and then sang for us. And they stared at us. It was a strange feeling, being greeted like royalty, or the President.

A goat munched serenely on weeds near the flagpole. A natural lawnmower today, lunch (if necessary) tomorrow.

The schoolyard (with goat and woman).

The school has three classrooms for the 180 kids currently enrolled, a small office for the principal, housing for the teachers – including solar cells on the roof for electricity – and a water well in the barren schoolyard.

The youngest kids looked to be about 6 or 7 – the age where most children in most countries start school. But the one or the other stood much taller than her comrades. A teacher told us later that these were the kids who lived farthest away, and whose parents didn’t let them begin first grade until they were 10 or 11.

Some kids, the principal said, just do not show up during the harvest of whatever crop their parents or neighbors farm. Other children attend for a year, but don’t come back when the new term starts. The teachers are used to this, and have no choice but to accept it as part of this traditional, agricultural society, where child labor (and child slavery) is not uncommon. Often the parents are illiterate, and don’t know better.

During our visit, the principal promised the kids that if they are really good students, and work very, very hard, then someday they can get on a big airplane and fly to where these two strange-looking women came from.

The older kids laughed, knowing full well this was something that maybe a single lucky one of them might experience in a lifetime. The younger ones seemed more bewildered than anything else. They didn’t seem to find this funny – or a state to which they would really wish to aspire. An uncomfortable, confused silence followed. We kept the smiles pasted on our faces so that we didn’t have to say anything – because we had no words at that moment.

At mid-morning a small child ran out of one classroom, grabbed a stick and banged on the rim of an old truck tire that had been stripped of its rubber, hanging on a wooden frame in the middle of the schoolyard.

The bell.

And then we saw what happens at recess at probably every rural primary school in Cote d’Ivoire. And all over the world.

180 kids + break-time = boundless energy.





Three women of Africa

11 05 2012

The first woman is cocoa farmer, grasping a rare opportunity to learn.

On this overcast day she joins two dozen men of her community in an educational program that promises to help her grow more cocoa pods, and deliver higher-quality beans that will be used for exclusive foreign chocolate and enjoyed in sophisticated European capitals that she will never see. She hopes to apply the things she learns on her own farm, to generate a higher income, and build a better life. She squats on the ground in her flip-flops and mixes a pile of freshly shucked cocoa beans, up to her elbows in the white pulp that tastes a little like lychee juice.

She sings while she works.

Womens’ work.

The second woman is a villager, grinding manioc on the doorstep of her mud-and-wattle home, to feed her family.

Her settlement is in a clearing in the rainforest, a red dirt piste the only connection to the main road, several miles away. To get there, we drive slalom around potholes wide enough to easily throw out an axle, and deep enough to easily swallow an entire car. These homes have no running water or electricity, and the roofs are made of dried palm leaves.

She tastes some of the chocolate we bring from far-away Europe. It is soft and runny, from the heat, but she takes a handful anyway, and sucks it off her fingers.

Womens’ work.

The third woman is not a woman at all. She is a child of maybe 13 or 15 years old, who has, herself, just borne a child, a few hours earlier. He lies next to her on the plastic-covered bed, stretching his arms skyward, to hug his new world, while she rests. The doctor at the rural health center tells us that the birth took place without anesthesia. “Natural childbirth,” they call it here. To get to the clinic at the top of the hill she had to walk. Her own mother, barely 30, accompanied her. She is now a grandmother.

I did not photograph them.

**********

These are three of the women I met last week in Ivory Coast, a country of 21 million inhabitants nestled between Liberia and Ghana in Western Africa. “Met” is perhaps an exaggeration. I don’t know much more about these women than the basic facts I have written down here, hastily scribbled into my reporters’ notebook at the time. I don’t even know their names. We exchanged a handshake, a “Bonjour madame!”, a smile, and a laugh at something silly. Our worlds touched briefly, with that bond dispersing a short time later, just as quickly.

These are three of the strong women of Africa.

She is the backbone of her community, she is the keeper of her family. Here in the rural communities of the Ivory Coast, she learns from an early age that she must embrace hard physical work to survive. And that she must endure the constant machismo of a traditional male-dominated society, where polygamy is regularly practiced and inheritance usually only passes to her brothers. She bears these lifelong hardships with dignity.

Every day she has a million miles to go before she can sleep.

This was my first visit to Western Africa, and it will surely not be my last. My body returned to Europe this morning. My soul is having a hard time keeping up.

Womens’ work.