GlobalTrek .:. 1983 to Present

Thursday, January 27, 2011

One year, 1,600 miles and a few million brain cells later....

Well, hi everybody!

I've been a bit quiet of late because my life has been moving at quite a clip! Today's an auspicious day though and I'd like to explain why.

On January 27th 2010 I was out at my usual Wednesday night footie game near my house in Westminster, Colorado. A few minutes into the game, I was tripped by one of the opposing defenders and fell headlong into the plexiglass wall that surrounded the pitch. I was rushed by ambulance to St. Anthony's hospital in Denver where I was fortunate to be seen by an incredibly talented team who acted quickly to treat what would later be termed a severe brain injury. I was then transfered to the intensive care unit where I spent five days, none of which I can recall. I don't remember the impact and have a gap of about six days which is common and known as post-traumatic amnesia. This single event set my life off into hyperdrive.

Deemed stable enough to begin rehabilitation, I was admitted to Craig Hospital - a well regarded brain injury treatment hospital and began one of the most challenging periods of my life. I awoke in a plastic bed and saw my mother at the foot of the bed (this was certainly odd as she lived about 1,200 miles away at the time). I was told on which days I could shower. I had to wear a safety harness when simply walking up stairs as part of physical therapy. I was given exercises that involved circling pictures of dogs, but only when they were next to beach balls (you might think I'm joking about that one...I'm not). I survived on chocolate milk and the Santiago's breakfast burritos and Daz Bog coffee that my mother brought for me every morning. My family was by my side for most of the ordeal and put up with my vicious mood and my extraordinary frustration while managing their enormous fears that I may never be the same as I had been before the accident. My mother flew in from Ohio, my sister from Washington, my aunt from Luton in England and my father and his then-fiancee were there to support me. Zach, Erin, Dreger, Rupal, Brendan, Abby, Kesse, Brendo and Mandy all came by as well. There is a debt of gratitude for those friends and family who were a major part of my recovery that I will never be able to repay. I would crawl over broken glass and swim through lemon juice to be there for them and still, I'd owe them more.

Despite all of the grim news and shock, I knew that I would be alright. My rage at not being listened to (dismissed at the time, but later validated by someone I deeply respect) and my ability to converse in fluent Spanish with the lunch lady, Marta, were hugely encouraging pieces of evidence that I would recover. By late March, I was out of the hospital and staying with my father up in the mountains above Boulder. Never have I been more excited to sleep in a real bed. By June, I was back to work at HP. By July, I'd realized that I wouldn't be living in Colorado for much longer and left Colorado for Maryland in early October. By mid-December, I'd applied to six MBA programs from New York to Washington DC.

Going back a bit...

I made a prediction about 2010 that's turned out to be true. I made it in Scotland in late December 2009. I spent New Year's there with my cousin Helen and a couple of her friends including the wickedly funny David Priorstrom. We recounted our tales of 2009 over hot toddies in the various pubs of Glasgow and came to the conclusion that 2010 was going to be a much better year than 2009 had been.

Less than a month later, I was fighting for my life. The injury set the tone for the first half of 2010. I had to endure challenges, none of which I'd ever faced before. There's something utterly surprising about being spoken to like a six-year-old; being told what days you are to shower, your opinions on matters of significance discounted by the professionals in charge of your care. Surrounded by nurses, physicians and my tremendous family, I still felt like I was fighting parts of a battle alone. When I left the hospital, I was given some "rules" which I was to follow: no alcohol for a year, no soccer for a year (with a request to never play again), bring a "buddy" to any new events like when I was going to head to the grocery store for the first time, no driving until I'd passed a multi-day evaluation and been cleared by my physician, no work for at least 3 months. Much of the sting of all of that has faded, but I look back now and it feels like I've been dropped into an ice bath.

I've been determined to put the injury/recovery behind me and yet, a year on, I see it as a more significant event that I ever thought I would. I don't feel defined by it, but it kicked off massive changes in my life. I returned to a job I didn't like before the injury and pushed towards getting out. On December 15th, I met that goal by leaving sales operations and taking a new role heading up a small team in delivery operations for HP Software Education. All of the disappointment and frustration I've felt are quickly being replaced by enthusiasm. Suffice to say that my professional life has FINALLY improved!

I returned to soccer - the sport that I love. Risky as it may be, this was the right decision and I'm happier on the pitch than off of it.

I also re-started my pursuit of graduate education. I used studying for the GMAT as therapy and on July 31st, I scored in the 92nd percentile. Since then I have applied to six of the best graduate programs in the world and been accepted to Georgetown and the University of Maryland, two of the top 50 schools in the world.

I've also fallen in love with a wonderful woman named Abby. We've known each other for more than a decade and have danced around the idea of getting together for nearly as long. She came to visit me in March when I was just out of the hospital. A lunch meeting ended up with us spending four solid days together and over cups of coffee and hours of chatting and catching up we both knew that there was something we couldn't ignore there. She came with me to Sarah and Gareth's wedding in England in August and we also took the train to Paris and eventually made our way down to Gigaro on the coast. She'd recently graduated from law school at Ohio State University and we were both in need of a real vacation. Today, we celebrate 10 months together.

And so, one year on, I reflect on the most tumultuous period of my life. A year ago today, I came closer to death than ever before. Today, I'm alive and well and chugging happily along a path filled with happiness and successes galore. Without a doubt, the first half of 2010 was the worst of my entire life, but the second half has brought an overpowering light and goodness such that my prediction came true; 2010 was better than 2009. I am endlessly grateful for those aforementioned and the countless others around the world who prayed for me and kept me in their thoughts. You are a big part of why I am able to sit smugly and say that I was able to predict the future. Thank you.

A very special and big shout-out to Kathy Hardin, a speech therapist at Mapleton Rehab Hospital in Boulder for all of her help. Kathy - you listened to me in a way no one else had. You challenged me and called me on my nonsense. You're a cut above and a big reason that I've been able to achieve a lot of this. THANK YOU.

Here's to a year full of happiness and one completely lacking in impacts with plexiglass!



Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Where'd I go?

It's been nearly a month since I posted anything on Tea Time Tales. First off, allow me to apologize to my faithful readers, many of whom have sent messages of concern.

I'm currently in Nairobi and can only explain my absence from publishing rather than excuse it. Having traveled through stunning lands and having seen truly breathtaking things, I understand how you would expect me to share. The truth is that although such have been part of the experience of GT:Africa, the flip side has been to immerse myself into the trials and tribulations of ordinary Africans. This journey has unveiled the depths of human depravity and its resultant destruction of individuals and societies. I have elected to bare witness to the extreme poverty of some in Ethiopia and the vast suffering of the survivors of the Rwandan genocide.

While my reactions to these events have left me at times enthused and inspired to work to craft solutions to these ills, I have also been worn down by their enormity. Such wear cannot, despite attempts, be refreshed by the various beers of Africa nor by regressing to a time when I was more oblivious, but rather by re-doubled efforts to evoke positive change in the lives of those I have met. I will need you and your friends and families to accomplish this.

In the coming weeks, I'll get a number of new posts up about GT:Africa and my adventures, but there will also be specific calls to action on campaigns that I'll be driving for the end of 2007 and the coming year. The two major projects include a new program for orphans in Lalibela, Ethiopia as well as what I hope will become global support for one Rwandan named Fraterne Bugabo who lost all of his support and most of his family in the horrors of 1994 when the world shied away from their responsibility to project the people of that nation.

I've been through the psychological and emotional wringer, folks, but I've come out the other end healthy and enthused. Africa is a wonderful place, and well worth fighting for. I hope you'll help me do that.



Monday, September 24, 2007

Ethiopia & Uganda pics now up!

I've just spent hours in the internet cafe here in Kisoro, Uganda uploading photos. There's another 140 just from Lalibela in Ethiopia to come, but still, there's plenty of new stuff up now.

You can find the link to my Picasa galleries here, or as always, down a bit on the right hand side of this page under the "About Me" section.

As always, comments appreciated as are emails about how you're doing.

Rwanda tomorrow, Rwanda tomorrow...

The Adventures of Amadou Ba

Summary: Yuri, Kathy and Dom head off for a three-day, 39km hike up, around, over and through Dogon Country in southern Mali. Dom drinks over 8L of water in one day and pees just once and Kathy gets a well-deserved exploration of perhaps the most amazing part of Mali.

After 7 or so hours on a bus where Yuri carefully selected our seats to offer the best chance for air circulation, we arrived back in Sevaré at dusk. Our once again gratuitous host, Sara, was still 20 minutes from her house, so we scaled the wall and headed up to the roof to watch the sunset. As we chowed down on the “street food” which consisted of a type of fried dough ball and some fried yam chips with some spicy sprinkling, the moon quickly took over from the sun as the main source of illumination over Mali. When Sara arrived, we joined her inside and began to plan the trip to Dogon. Yuri was excited about the trip and it’s only now that I understand how my non-committal attitude early on could have left him a tad perturbed. My “go with the flow” had clashed a bit with his wanting to get stuff penciled in and I’d like to apologize to him for that one. Nevertheless, after some helpful advice from Sara who’d already visited the area, we made a decision about a timeline, a guide and set up our departure for early the next morning. We’d elected to take the more expensive guide of the two on offer as he was supposedly the go-to guy for all the PCVs and came highly recommended by Sara. We all had a good repack of our rucksacks along with some of the vanilla biscuits I’d purchased from some kid while hanging out the back of that pickup truck outside of Gao before showering and getting ready for a night on the roof and under the stars – there was no way I was going to endure a replay of Sevaré heat in a sheltered balcony with no airflow.

I awoke before Yuri and Kathy and pondered cracking open the copy of The Kite Runner that I’d been neglecting. I had good intentions when I picked the book up more than a week ago, but had given it little time opting rather to try to spank the other PCV teams in the spades tourney or watch Mali go by. This morning would be no different as the couple beside me soon slumbered no more and we were up and at ‘em by close to 6am. With Sara in tow, we met our guide at the main road – I was not at all ready. A hefty chap of around 6’2” and a good 230 lbs, I at first had no idea what language Hassimi was speaking in. Figuring a smile was the best option, I threw out a big one which was immediately reciprocated. After a quick road-side breakfast of an egg sandwich and a Malian coffee, we hopped into our ride. For being the “more expensive” guide, I expected some sort of 4WD vehicle and was surprised by the sight of “Grandma”. A once blue 1968 Peugeot 300, “Grandma” was Hassimi’s true love and he beamed with pride as he showed her off. Her doors would open only for him; the door lock knobs were long and there was a definite trick to getting the latch mechanism to release. Her floor boards felt thin beneath the red African dust and the upholstery was certainly from another age. Sitting shotgun, I found a bottle of water at my feet that I imagined was for drinking but, as I would later learn, was for “Grandma” and her tendency to get a little hot under the hood. The main road to Bandiagara, the major town (less than 7,000 people) near the start of our Dogon trek had been washed out and so we would be taking the more difficult and longer “back road”. We’d paid more for this unfortunate circumstance and now all our hopes and prayers were riding on Hassimi and “Grandma”.

As we bumped and crashed along some decently rough roads, I had no idea of the wonders that awaited us; Dogon had been just another few days on my itinerary and wholly Yuri’s responsibility. We stopped in Bandiagara for lunch and chatted with Hassimi about potential promotions for his business and how he could capitalize further on his popularity. Yuri and I were really into it, though I felt Kathy was growing bored of the marketing/promotion lecture. During lunch it also came out that I had yet to receive a Malian name. All the PCVs had them and they were a way of connecting with other Malians. Your Malian surname was shared by many others and there is a defined system of “joking cousins” that can essentially call each other names and laugh it off. The way the PCVs explained it, the system functions as a pressure release and allows for a fair amount of face-saving and playful rib poking. The honor had been given to Yuri, but having little inspiration, Hassimi undertook the task and bestowed upon me the name of Amadou Ba. The surname “Ba” can mean “mother” or “large”, and at 6’2” and 95kgs, I think I fit the bill.

After lunch in Bandiagara, we continued on and reached Sanga, our launch point, in the early afternoon. After Hassimi chatted with some of the locals, we threw on our packs and began walking without any mention of where we were going. As we were parked in close proximity to a number of sleeping establishments, I thought perhaps we’d stay there. Instead, we walked up the rocks that formed Sanga’s base and over to the cliffs that overlooked a magnificent valley. Walking with a number of villagers who had made a trek to Sanga, we began our descent down a decently established path before the path narrowed into a small canyon. At the far end, the canyon opened to a cliffside escarpment of thatched roofs and stone walls. Ahead, the end of the canyon framed a picturesque waterfall and I hoped we’d get a chance to cool off with a power shower. Unfortunately, our path wrapped around through the village and away from the waterfall. We’d been hiking perhaps an hour before I finished my first 1.5L bottle of water. While the locals were happy to drink well water, as was our guide Hassimi, he advised us against it and instead to treat or buy our water. Though I had water purification tabs with me, I figured I’d save them for when it wasn’t possible to purchase water and instead paid the exorbitant sum of CFA1300 (Nearly $3) for a bottle at the first “hotel” we stopped at. It’s very much worth noting that everything in Dogon country is pretty basic - there’s no TV, no internet, no real distractions. For those seeking some time to reconnect with nature, it’s perfect, but it also means that in order to enjoy creature comforts like bottled water, you have to pay for them. While expensive, I thought about the woman who would have had to bring the case of water down the steep cliffs that we’d just descended and I felt a lot better about her making some money for her sizeable effort. After another two hours, we arrived at the village of Koundou – our first stop on this journey.

Right in the valley on the sides of these massive rock walls that very much reminded me of Southwestern Colorado, we stayed on the roof of the largest hotel in town. I was quick to order another bottle of water and polished a good bit of it before heading for a shower and some clean clothes. This would be another 12 hour+ day in the Malian books. I’d been in West Africa for two weeks and had yet had to purchase soap, but as none was provided at our place, I wandered across the road to a little window where despite having maybe 20 items in all, they had 3 different types of soap. Happy with the cheapest at CFA300, I walked back and hoped into the shower, though while cold, was absolutely fine. It was third room I’d tried as of the four communal bathrooms, only two had showers and only one of those was even piped with water. Of course, there was no indication of any of this – I can only presume Malians have plenty of time and just like to leave little challenges everywhere. My throat still very sore, dinner went down with considerable effort and the beer Yuri and I shared offered no relief. Tired, I taught Hassimi a phrase to which he took an enthusiastic liking when I told him that that night I’d sleep very well; “like a ton of bricks”. Hearing a Malian repeat that phrase and putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllables and giving it his own timing still makes me smile. As night fell and with no motivation to engage my one distraction in “The Kite Runner”, I crawled into my tent, onto my sleeping sack and fell asleep.

From the valley floor, the cliffs of Dogon Country are certainly impressive, but more so are the mid-cliff dwellings that are spotted along a number of the faces. The rich history of the region includes a people known as the Tellem who existed before the current inhabitants, the Dogon. Lonely Planet tells it like this: “The origins of the Tellem are unclear – Dogon tradition describes them as small and red skinned – and non are believed to remain today, although some Dogon say that the Tellem now live on the plains to the east. The vertical cliff is several hundred meters high, yet the Tellem managed to build dwellings and stores in the most inaccessible places. Most cannot be reached today, and the Dogon believe the Tellem could fly, or used magic powers to reach them. Another theory suggests that the wetter climate of the previous millennium allowed vines and creepers to cover the cliff, providing natural ladders for the early inhabitants.” I heard this story repeated by Hassimi who claims that he was also told that the Tellem were pygmies would had “black magic” powers including the gift of flight. Hassimi later scooted quickly around a frog, no doubt afraid of it.

Day two would see two ascents and one descent. While it's difficult to estimate, we likely covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-18km over a variety of landscapes from the flat valley to the rocky cliffs all the way to the top of one of the escarpments from where we got some fantastic views (this is where I took the shot with the CU sticker). In continuation from the previous night and somewhat his trademark, Hassimi laid out a number of riddles throughout the day. Kathy had laid out some good ones herself including something about a bell, a cliff and a guy dying. My best offering was the 4 liters from a 5 liter and 3 liter jugs that I learned from Die Hard with a Vengeance. Hassimi’s cracker was the following: A cowboy walks into a bar and orders a beer. The bartender points a gun at him and the cowboy says “thank you”. What happened? I’ll let that one stew with you a bit. If you believe Hassimi, it’s really obvious and easy.

Through another village, we saw how local people lived in Dogon and while much of it was hidden from us, it struck me how crucially important water is for these people and how much work they must exert in order to get it. The well for the villages half-way up the cliff is down in the valley a good 3km away. Women walk this multiple times a day in bare feet and carry back the liquid valuable on their heads. Granted, it’s easier than carrying it in your arms, but it’s a serious undertaking any way you slice it and absolutely nothing like turning on a tap. Also noteworthy (and shown in the galleries) is the meeting place for the village men. A 3m structure with a thick roof and very low ceiling, the design is intentional in that one with heated emotions must remain seated and therefore his physical ability to over-react is limited. Essentially, he must sit and try to talk things out rather than get up to rant, rave and perhaps attack he with whom he is having a disagreement. While basic, I liked the idea and wondered what it would be like in Western courtrooms – high paid attorneys in $3,000 suits sitting on the floor, unable to prance around and espouse concocted tales.

We took lunch near the top of the cliffs and by this point I had already polished off 2 bottles of water an ordered 2 more. I removed my pack and then my shirt and was able to wring out a fair amount of liquid from it. I wondered how much was actual sweat and how much water my body had taken from my what I was putting in my mouth and immediately pushing out onto my skin. I mentioned to Yuri that while I was no stranger to sweating, this topped every experience I’d ever had including Japan, Cambodia, and even India. After a plate of spaghetti and a short ziz on a plastic straw mat while covered with my turban, we were right back at it climbing the final 50m to the top of the cliffs. In one proof of worth, we had to scale an 8ft, single pole ladder. The potential fall was a frightening 30m though this was mitigated by a series of logs that had been propped over the gap. I gave the strength of the logs little thought and shot up the ladder with haste. As we left the darkness of the crevasse, the world opened to us. In all directions, Dogon Country laid before us – from the valleys to the cliffs, from this viewpoint we stood in amazement of this truly breathtaking place that seemed to have no business being in a place like Mali. After a number of photos, Hassimi rushed us off, over the solid rock top to the descent of the day. Through another village, we clambered down both rocks as well as decently-worn paths before finally making it to another flat area. Covered with plots of cultivation, it became very apparent that the people of Dogon are subsistence farmers and live a simple life built around community and family. For a moment, I wondered what it would be like to live such a life. As a PCV, some had – for 2 years. I tried to imagine no email, no MLS games, no scotch, no electricity and I gave up. Such a life, for such a period of time, was outside of my mental grasp. I wonder how I would endure the simplicity of such a life and how I would control my longing for things that to the people of Dogon hold no significance whatsoever. For much of the one hour walk through the flats, none of us spoke instead opting to absorb.

Our second ascent of the day began at just after 4:30pm and Hassimi’s angst had calmed a bit. Apparently, we’d made decent time through the flats and we would likely make it to our camp before nightfall. While not tired, I’d nearly killed the 2 bottles of water I’d purchased at lunch and was rationing the last ¾ L, not knowing where our camp would be. Much like the morning’s climb, but seemingly easier, we chugged on up the side of the hill from which grew the mighty cliffs of Dogon. Through villages with curious children we passed offering smiles and greetings in the very limited Dogon that Hassimi had taught us. Yuri was the most keen to engage the locals and practiced his Dogon every chance he got with children, old women and even a local dog. About half way up the cliff, we took a break and watched as a massive and gray cloud loomed in the distance over the valley. I quickly pointed out to Hassimi that we’d been done in by not one, but two big storms on the Niger. As the storm approached, I threw out a guess of it hitting us in about 15 minutes. No more than 3 minutes later, the rain started. At first, small, infrequent drops simply caused us to up our pace, but as the rain got a bit harder, we sought shelter under a large boulder that simply wasn’t large enough for the five of us (we’d picked up another guide along the way, apparently Hassimi’s doing). Hassimi encouraged us to push on saying that there was a larger shelter ahead. Walking on steep cliffs is a tricky endeavor, but when you add water to the mix, it can get quite serious and we were all very aware of the implications of a fall in a part of the country where there are no real roads and a rescue is hours away. And so, as the rain soaked our bodies and our bags, we took our time and topped the cliff. I wondered where this shelter was that Hassimi had said was close. We had been walking for 10 minutes and I’d seen nothing resembling appropriate shelter. After another five minutes, I smelled what he was up to as I could see a village in the distance. Through a field of millet and just before dusk, we arrived at our stopping point for the night. A very simple lodge with just covered areas, a pit toilet and bucket showers, we would make it home for the night. After we laid out a few things to attempt to dry, I ordered another bottle of water and quickly made short work of it. Kathy was first to shower with the hot water that the owner of the place had kindly prepared for her. Yuri and I followed, getting a similar courtesy. Bucket showers are an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Granted, they don’t compare to meeting Desmond Tutu or rafting the Nile, but to use a bucket, a cup and a bar of soap to clean yourself is an eye-opening experience. You have to get the wetting-yourself quantity correct and quickly lather up before getting too cold. Appropriately soapy, you have to ration the remaining water in the bucket to ensure you get all the suds off. If there’s anything you don’t want to do with a shower it’s to leave still covered in Irish Spring. Furthermore, a bucket of water is no more than 4 gallons - that’s the average per minute flow of a shower in the U.S. – and many people take daily 20 minute showers. Such realizations make to sit back and question the experience and knowledge of politicians who claim that Africans use resources irresponsibly. I had consciously drunk five and a half 1.5L bottles of water that day – and had peed one time; and it was a half-pee at that. Conclusion: Dogon makes ya sweat.

Our final morning began like the previous with toast, margarine, Nescafé and packing. A short day of hiking with much less vertical involvement than the previous days, we were able to take our time and enjoy the scenery. Over hiking paths, car tracks and even an actual road, we made our way back to Sanga enjoying each others company as well as a few of the local fruits called Zabans along the way. As proof that he’s spent too much time away from Western candy, Yuri tried to convince me they taste somewhat like Sweet-Tarts. In actual fact, the ascorbic acid content in them made the ulcers in the back of my throat hugely unhappy and I limited my intake. As a funny aside, they are somewhat hard to open and Malians have both a song and dance that surrounds the event. Maybe someone’s captured it and put it on YouTube.

After a day that was longer than I expected, we arrived sweaty and dirty back to “Grandma” who graciously took us as far as Bandiagara before she had a problem with her left front brake line that forced us to take a timeout. Luckily, Kathy and Yuri had wanted to buy some of the tasty jam that Hassimi had provided for us on the trip and Bandiagara was the spot. One of the two had also thankfully brought some cards and we sat playing hearts wondering when we might get out of there. In an odd twist of fate, a few minutes before entering the restaurant to play cards, a Toyota Land Cruiser rolled right in front of us carrying the three Spanish girls I’d met and spent the day with in Senegal. They were quick to stop and we quickly exchanged niceties before they mentioned that they were on their way back to Senegal for the wedding they’d mentioned nearly 2 weeks prior. The world can seem like a big place, but when such events occur it’s impossible not to be surprised at the chances.

With “Grandma” feeling better, she took us, once again, over the bumpy roads and through the mud puddles back to Sevaré where Sara was kind enough to put us up for a third night. The next morning it was back on the bus – this time to Segou, Yuri and Kathy’s site, for a few days of doing very little. After the Niger trip and now Dogon Country, I was more than ready.

Oh, and Hassimi's riddle: did you figure it out? Yeah, we didn't either. The oh-so-obvious answer (according to him) is that the cowboy had hiccups and that it's commonly known that you cure those by being frightened. Gotta love Hassimi.