Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Dimestore Philosophy

You know those people who say, “live every moment like it’s your last”?

Yeah, I totally don’t do that.

I mean, I see what they’re trying to say, with the whole don’t waste your life waiting around for the “perfect” moment or whatever. And I agree with it. But it sounds exhausting when you put it that way. And also a little depressing. How can you be all motivated, if you constantly think you’re about to die?

No, I have a completely different philosophy. And this is probably one of those times when I’m all, “You Guys! I’m brilliant!” and you all read it and think, “Err… Right,” but I think it explains a lot about me.

I live every moment as if I’m going to look back on it twenty years from now.

Because I plan to still be around in twenty years, thank you very much, and for another forty after that. In fact, I don’t have an upper range on my lifespan in mind, although a psychic once told me I’d die at 82. And I really hope I’m not dooming myself to getting hit by a bus this afternoon (Murphy’s Law and all that) but if I do, at least I’ll know that I wasn’t living my life in fear of that moment.

Nope. I’m planning to stick around. And Future Naomi will spend a fair amount of time dwelling nostalgically in her memories of her twenties. Know how I know that? Because Current Naomi is already a big fan of reminiscing.

Which is why, when I come up with a new scheme or grand plan or crazy whim, and people wonder where it came from, I’m usually all, “How cool will it be to say that I did that?” Because when I’m looking back, I want to have something more interesting to tell people than, “You know, I worked and watched TV and stuff.”

Also? Really embarrassing moments tend to make even better stories than the braggy “I ran a marathon stories.” So when something ridiculous happens to me (if, say, I impale my armpit on a wrought-iron fence), or when I do something idiotic (like, for instance, deciding to climb an 8-foot wrought-iron fence), I can always comfort myself with the knowledge that I will recount that moment repeatedly for years to come.

All of this goes hand in hand with the other pillar of my philosophy, which is that I never regret doing something, I only ever regret NOT doing something.

Like everyone else, I’m not a big fan of doing things badly. Especially if people are watching. But I realized at some point my regrets ususally center around things I didn't do, because you really don't always get a second chance. And because, if you try and it sucks, well, twenty years from now, it just won't be such a big deal. Either I’ll have forgotten about it, or it was so ridiculous that I’m still laughing. And if it works out, well, then I'll just be thrilled.

So I was smugly certain that I had Figured It Out, “it” in this case being “everything” or maybe “life” or just “whatever,” and I smirked and even foisted my solution on someone else in a comment on her blog. Which made me realize that I had no idea what I was talking about, because who knew if her decision involved doing something vs. NOT doing something. Maybe it was doing something vs. doing something else. And if the decision affects all your days for a long time, well, then I’m not sure if I could be certain that I’d never regret choosing to do it.

Except I still think this works (and I’m back to talking about me, no reflection on the other person). In reality, every decision is a choice between doing something and doing something else. I mean, I’m never deciding between, say, going for a run and ceasing to exist for forty-five minutes. It’s always a choice between running and doing whatever I’d do if I didn’t run, like say, munching on carrots ([lie] because that’s all I ever snack on, honest! [/lie]) in front of the TV. Which, sometimes, is totally the right decision.

But if I always try to frame my choices as a decision to DO something, rather than choosing NOT to do something else, then I think I’ll be happy. Because then twenty years from now, (or you know, next week) I will look back on a life that wasn’t a default value of not doing other things. It will be a series of things that I chose to do. Like watching eleventy-million hours of Friends reruns.


Don’t forget to check out this week’s Rundown chez Chandra.

Monday, August 29, 2005

13.1 miles vs. Naomi: One week left

I’ve been pretty coy about this half-marathon coming up this weekend. (For me.) In fact, I’ve barely been mentioning it at all. (For me.) I’ve kept the angst (in this space) to a reasonable minimum, I think, and I hope you all appreciated it.

But, despite my heroic effort of will to spare y’all the sturm und drang of my interior monologue, rest assured, there was both sturm UND drang in my interior monologue.

First there was the whole month that I didn’t run in Africa, prompting a few doomsday scenarios in which I Never! Ran! Again! And also gained 25 pounds (instantly!) and other atrocities! Of catastprophic proportions!

Somehow I dodged that bullet (don’t really know how, but I can tell you that it involved some crazy Matrix-fu and also incantations and hypnosis, which last may in fact be the reason the memory is a bit fuzzy), and I started running again in a prompt-like fashion.

But were my fears of ignoble defeat assuaged by this bona fide miracle? Oh no. Please. Puh-lease.

To illustrate the angst that remained, I will treat you to some highlights from my brain as I ran the first four miles of my twelve-mile run on Saturday (note: Foreshadowing!):

“Wow. This sucks. Maybe I should just stop.”
“Twelve miles is a lot. Shouldn’t I be tapering this week?”
“Damn, there goes my instep. If I injure myself today, I’ll never be able to do the half-marathon next week. Maybe I should just stop.”
“Ack. Was that my knee? Maybe I should just stop.”
“What’s my pace? 11:30-plus? Wow. And I haven’t even taken any walk breaks. I wonder if Jackie and Tim will let me take walk breaks during the half-marathon? And also? Maybe I should just stop.”
“No. No stopping. I’ll just run these next few miles a little faster. Mile three, that’s totally my mile. I’m going to kill this mile. The wind, it will not be able to keep up with me, because of the fastness that I will achieve.”
“Hmm. That was about 12-minutes, that mile. Maybe I should just stop.”

And so on for all 57-ish minutes of those first five miles.

But I! do not quit! Oh no I do not! What do I do instead? I press on.

And then I collapse and die and everyone is very sad.

No, I do not die. I keep running, and! Something magical happens.

First? The trail started to go up hill. And second? It started to rain much harder.

Neither of these things are magical. Sorry to have misled you.

But wait, the magic is still coming. Because that 6th mile? 10:40. And the seventh? 10:20. And it kept getting better.

8: 10:30 (well, this one had a really steep part)
9: 9:40 (I started going downhill)
10: 9:20
11: 9:25
12: 9:11 (!!!)

I ended up averaging a 10:30 pace. And I could have smoked the last mile-point-one of the half-marathon, had it been race day.

What did I tell you? Magic! And by magic, I absolutely mean performance-enhancing drugs. Because you know what else happened around mile five, besides the uphill-going, and the rain-falling? I ate a PowerBar Chocolate Gel, with caffeine, which was my goo of choice during the marathon, but which I haven’t had since TNT stopped bringing boxes of them to my every Saturday run.

I may complain about the taste of those things—I like to say that the chocolate ones, which are my favorite, taste exactly like chocolate frosting, if you’ve never eaten chocolate frosting—but my heaven, they are effective. Because, my super-tricky secret weapon is that I never drink coffee or soda, so I almost never have any caffeine. And when I do? Watch the fuck out, is what I’m saying.

Of course, the rain was more helpful than I implied, because it cut the humidity and caused the temperature to drop. Also, the first four miles were on gravel, which may have been the root of the foot and knee pain. Nevertheless. I’m all about the gel.

And also, watch out Virginia Beach Half-Marathon, because I am coming, I am bringing PowerBar Chocolate Gel, and I am warning you, the result, oh, no, it will not be pretty (for you).

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

12 days until the VA Beach Half Marathon...

So I don’t know if you know this, but I pretty much write all of my updates while I’m at work. (That’s a lie! All of my work hours are spent productively working!)

Recently, however, I’ve spent my downtime at work on another side project: namely, looking for another job. (Slander! Who told you that? I could never condone such abuse of company equipment or time.)**

So my primo blogging time has been spent fruitlessly combing through job listings (search terms: Naomi and dream and job; no hits. Baffling), filling out the Peace Corps Application (the backup plan that is quickly becoming the primary plan), and updating my resume (endless, impossible, and annoying).

Plus, after you go a few days without posting, it gets much harder. It’s like, you’re running along, and you thinking about how this! This run, right now, will make a hilarious entry! Because the track? That you thought was 400 meters long? Is only 300 meters! Comic genius! But then it’s two days later, and you’ve already run another time, and you don’t really remember why you were so excited about the mystical, magical track of extra speedy Yassos (that are actually unmystical, unmagical, and normal amounts of speedy because the track? Was only 300 meters! Oh, I need a moment to catch my breath, because the laughter, it is not stopping).

I do want to complain about ChiRunning for a moment. Did you know that they meant Chi, as in “chee”, as in Tai Chi?

Because, I? Did not.

I was all pronouncing that “Kai” rhymes with "rye" Running. Because I’m down with folk music and vegetarians, and even pilates, but something about Yoga and eastern philosophies just weirds me out. (Kharmically, Peace Corps is now destined to send me to India. Sigh.)

I should clarify—I’m not trying to insult Buddhist Monks or wherever this stuff really comes from (hello ignorance!). I just don’t like the people who tell me I can change my life by breathing.

Which, in retrospect, I should have thought about before buying the book. Especially because I’m a little bit lying when I said that I didn’t know how they meant Chi. I mean, it was true, when I first read it, I didn’t make the connection. But then I read the pun that Riona’s doctor ***made about how it was “ouChi” running, and I figured it out. But I reasoned that if I just kept calling it “Kai” Running, we could all keep going to the kosher deli and stay happy and injury-free.

Then I got the book. There’s no denying it. The author is all about breathing and getting Chi from food and they really should have called the book “New Age Running” because the whole Chi thing is really misleading to some people.

Plus, I tried the first exercise to strengthen my core and straighten my back, and I did it wrong, and my back hurt for a week.

But then! It was Saturday! And I did my long run with a TNT friend and her dog and her neighbor, and we ran 10 miles, and my instep started to hurt in a way that my friend said indicated impending plantar fascitis! But then I remembered that ChiRunning said that relaxing the muscles in your legs and feet reduces the impact! And it worked!

Oh, the hilarity. Good thing I have a blog so I can share these priceless moments.

Anybody want to hire me to be a reporter at a newspaper (or bureau of a newspaper or newswire or magazine) in southern Africa?

** I have told my boss that I’m looking for a new job, which he understands and (mournfully) supports. When I took my job, I informally promised to stay here two years. He in turn promised that this job had no track towards promotion. I have been here 2 years and 2 months. There is no track for promotion. This is not because I suck at my job. Or because I blog at work (I don’t!).

*** (Edited to add): You know, when I typed "Stephanie" up there, I thought to myself, "Self, was that Stephanie or Riona who had the foot with the doctor and the Chi running?" And I told myself, "Err, Stephanie? I dunno. Look it up." But then I told myself, "Eh, someone will point it out if I was wrong," because I am an irresponsible blogger. But then everybody was too polite to tell me. Sigh. I guess I need to do my own fact-checking. Remind me what I pay you all for?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Carnival of Runners

There’s a moment when you cross the finish line of a race, and you’re all excited, and maybe you see your favorite cheer squad cheering or maybe you just blew away your old PR or maybe it’s a half-ironman and you pulled it off and there’s snacks and swag waiting on the other side and you’re sweaty and breathing hard and smiling or maybe there are tears streaming down your cheeks, and you think, this is great. No really, this is fucking awesome, this running thing. I mean, really. Fucking. Awesome.

But moments only last, like, a few seconds. And most of the moments that make up your running career aren’t the one where you triumphantly cross a finish line. Most of the other moments are just putting one foot in front of the other a lot of times.

Sometimes, like A.Maria, we have motivation problems.

Sometimes, even the most determined and hard-core like Wil feel creeping doubts.

Some, like Ed feel the pull of family. BD1, with a newborn and a toddler at home, is all too familiar with fitting 25 hours into 24.

And yet?

Right foot in front of left foot. Rinse and repeat.

Even though it was ridiculously hot.

Because there are boys watching.

Because there’s a race coming, and, even an injury can’t disguise the determination in Stephanie’s eyes.

Because it’s possible.

Edited to add: Apparently, Naomi = not so good with the links, (thanks for catching the broken ones, Derek!) but all of them should be working now...

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Shake it like a polaroid picture

I realized there was one more Africa story begging to be told.

The tale of the African nightclub vs. Naomi

Even though I’m sure it’s plainly obvious, even in my prose, I feel the need to explain, for those of you who haven’t met me in real life, that I am whiter than white. I’m the whitest there is, and I’m not just talking about my pale, pale skin (which is, no doubt about it, supa dupa white).

I have no rhythm. I know nothing about rap, hip-hop, or R&B—much to the dismay of one of the workcamp participants who was endlessly asking my opinion of the new R. Kelly video (or videos—apparently there’re twelve that are, like, a day in the life of R. Kelly. Or something.) or the new release by some other international sensation whom I’d never heard of.

I don’t use the latest slang—in fact, I can’t even bring myself to write an example of what I think the latest slang is because I’d be wrong.

I’m not cool, is what I’m saying. And my coolness is especially lacking in the realm of black culture.

And, white folks can’t dance. We’ve all seen the white boy overbite, the shopping cart, the paralyzed step-shuffle of bad white-boy dancing. Girls have it a bit easier, because we mostly just need to shake our booty, but trust me, it’s still possible to mess that up.

That being said, I love to dance. I spent my entire childhood (avoiding sports) in one sort of dance class or another, and when the music is good and I’m with friends, I can have an absolute blast. It took me a long time to get to this place—this place being one where I am willing and able to dance in public, in front of people who might look, without having drunk entirely too much alcohol. But at a certain point I realized that I was having fun and nobody really cared how I danced. Or if they did, it was their problem.

Nevertheless, I was nervous going to the nightclub in Africa. Especially because it was fairly unlikely that I’d hear Bon Jovi, Prince or any of my other tried and true dance favorites.

But I was going with my Batswana friends, and they also said that they were terrible dancers but didn’t care, and anyway, I wasn’t going to be in Africa and not go to the nightclub with my friends.

So off we went.

I wish that I had a video camera, because mere words are not enough to describe to you what I saw.

The best I can do is offer a comparison.

Have you ever been to a folk festival? You know those people who stand right at the front and dance? There they are, barefoot, with grungy braids or dreadlocks, wearing loose-fitting Indian textiles, dancing like they don’t even see the rest of us. They bend at the waist, pump their arms, wag their butts, and shake their heads. Three steps forward, wag, wag, wag, three staps back, lean back, pump, shake, pump.

My friend and I used to call it dirty hippy dancing, and the only other time I’d seen anything like it was when I was an exchange student in France and I went to a jazz festival with my host parents. Who are wonderful, brilliant, smart, fun people, and also? Dirty hippies. And at the jazz concert, there they all were—40 and 50 year olds, with long stringy hair, in sandals and loose-fitting Indian textiles: step, step, wag, wag, step, shake, pump, pump, pump.

Now pictures a dim nightclub, full of black men in their twenties, in baggy jeans and jerseys, rocking their do-rags and dreadlocks—dancing like dirty hippies.

The first time I went, it was Sunday, African Jazz night, so I thought maybe on a regular night people would dance differently. But the following week, I went on a Saturday night, and let me tell you—it was worse.

The beat in African jazz is slow and strong, and on the Sunday night I was there, most people seemed to be following it. On the Saturday, the music was still all African, but a different style, with a faster more elusive beat. And so people just danced to whatever beat they felt like, striding all over the floor, wagging their butts, leaning back and shaking their heads at the ceiling, pumping their arms like nobody’s business. They all looked like they were on acid trips—or at least, what I imagine a room full of people tripping would look like, since I’ve never actually been in one.

But, and I’ve learned this at many a folk festival and at that jazz concert in France, it’s damn fun dancing like a dirty hippy. And it’s a hell of a lot more fun dancing like a dirty hippy than sitting like a wall flower. So I got out there on the floor with Ras and Stu, two Batswana guys from the workcamp, and Kutlo, the Motswana girl (when she wasn’t on her cell phone dealing with some friend-related drama). I wagged and stomped and pumped, and every once in a while I threw in a booty shake for good measure.

The only other white person in the room was Gabriele, the Italian guy from the workcamp, but he was sitting on the side with Phozah, a Motswana guy, who had a stern principled stance against drinking, and also never danced.

I was not the only white person in Maun, but for the reaction I provoked, I may have been the first white person the Batswana had ever seen dance.

The women just stared, and, when I stared back, would smile shyly.

The guys however, were different story. It took a song or two, but before long they started approaching. I felt a little like a straggling antelope being cut off from the herd. They would approach our little circle, dance with the guys for a phrase of music or two (something that would not fly in an American night club) and then slowly cut me off and back me away from the original circle.

The only problem was, there were like 10 guys trying that at once, so before I knew it, I was dancing in a much larger circle, with my friends on the opposite side, and seven strangers, staring at me intently, in between.

It was a little hilarious and a little intimidating, but I mostly avoided eye contact, and when I got too far away from my friends, I would just walk around the strangers until I was next to them again. The guys mostly kept their hands to themselves (on Sunday night; the following Saturday they got more grabby), and most were too shy to actually talk to me. Most gave up relatively quickly (and were immediately replaced by others) when I failed to respond, though there was one or two who kept trying through several songs.

I have never gotten so much attention in my life, but actually, that was fairly typical of the reaction I got from almost all of the men I met in Botswana. They don’t have a history of racial tension there, so to them my white skin was simply exotic. Plus, it meant that I was probably rich, at least in Botswana terms. Actually, the women were often equally interested in starting a conversation with me, especially when they learned I was American. But of course, the guys didn’t want to stop with a conversation. And, not that I do this anywhere, but Botswana is the last place on earth you want to have a random hook-up—the HIV infection rate is well over 30%, and higher among people in their mid- to late-twenties.

I met a white woman from Germany on the bus from Gaborone (Botswana’s capital) to Jo’burg, and we shared a cab to the airport. I had seen her in Gaborone saying a tearful goodbye to her Motswana boyfriend, and, as we sat and chatted in the airport before our flights, she told me about how their relationship began. She had come to Botswana for a nine-month volunteer project, and intended to stay single (because HIV, so, obviously) but soon found the attention overwhelming. She started dating her boyfriend because she thought it would be easier to fend off the advances if she weren’t single, and he seemed like the best of the bunch.

Of course, she ended up falling in love, has flown him to Germany to visit her, and is now planning to move to Botswana permanently to marry the boy.

That’s a more extreme solution than I needed. But being white in Botswana is probably the closest I’ll ever come to being a celebrity. Which, to tell the truth, was never something I thought I would enjoy, anyway.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Asshat, part deux

Okay, so when last we left our intrepid travelers, they were waiting in vain for Guide Asshat to arrive with their refund.

To the surprise of no one, he failed to appear with money or an excuse. However, a little birdie had informed us that on Thursday, he would be meeting his trainees at the park entrance when it opened in the morning.

I was on breakfast duty that morning, but Gabriele and Daniela checked the gate every five minutes or so in the midst of dressing, washing up, and eating.

That five minute window, of course, allowed him to slip into the park undetected and disappear into the trails.

Gabriele decided to follow Asshat’s tracks and ambush him in front of his trainees. (Anyone think we’d maybe spent to long living in an African park at this point?) Unfortunately, in a park that had maybe 20 visitors on a good day, Gabriele ended up following the wrong large group of sneakers into the bush. Slippery, slippery man, this Asshat.

But Gabriele, never one to give up, decided not to… er… give up.

He started running through all the trails, hoping that in a finite park (3 km x 2 km by most reports), he would run into Asshat eventually. Which he did. Eventually.

Asshat and Gabriele agreed to meet at our camp site at 11 am, and Gabriele left to rejoin us as we were clearing trails and picking up litter elsewhere in the park.

“Mais, non!” you are all thinking. “It is not possible! Zhese imbeciles have learned NOTHING. Why would zhey think M. Chapeau de Cul would actually show up at zhe agreed time?” (In my imagining, you all have French accents. Go with it.)

But in fact, we had learned a tiny bit of something. Well before the agreed time, Gabriele went to the gate, told the guards why and where he was meant to meet L’Asshat, and then went back to our camp to wait.

Where, not 10 minutes later, around 10:30 am, Asshat appeared, escorted genially by a park guard. I will leave it to you all to decide whether Asshat had attempted to escape by slipping out a half hour early or had merely stopped at the gate to chat with his friend the guard in his spare half hour. I know what I believe.

Asshat, of course, did not have our refund. But, wising up, Gabriele got him to sign a receipt (with the guard as a witness) that he would refund 500 pula the next day and 400 pula the following day. The guard told Gabriele to report Asshat’s misdeeds to the tourism office and the police immediately, but he felt, and we agreed, that our case would be stronger once he failed to comply with his written promise.

Are you bored of this story yet? It’s so very predictable.

We didn’t go to the authorities until Monday, because Asshat gave us 200 pula on Friday, and promised the rest the next day. He was quite skillfully biding his time until we left the country and stopped bothering him. If only he used the same energy to, you know, do his job in the first place.

This is the part of the story where I began having fun. I mean, most tourist itineraries completely skip the police station. And you can learn a lot about a country from places like that. Both the tourism officials and the police took our story very seriously (especially the tourism officials, where they know exactly how important foreign visitors are to their economy, and how detrimental bad word of mouth could be), and before I knew it, I was in the back seat of a RAV4 with a policewoman and the park manager in the front, driving all around town trying to chase this guy down. And also telling the policewoman about America, which she, like everyone else I met, fervently wanted to visit. And, even though she’d never left Botswana, she already had her passport, ready and waiting.

Nice though she was, she was no Lennie Briscoe, and we didn’t track Asshat down that afternoon. (She called his cell phone and believed whoever answered that she’d gotten a wrong number. Asshat later called us from the same number to complain that going to the police was entirely uncalled for, and we should trust him that he would give us our refund. Tell it to the cops, I say.)

On Thursday morning, however, Asshat reappeared at the park with his trainees. The park manager, despite the fact that he was leaving imminently on a business trip, drove off to fetch a tourism official, loaded Asshat into the car, and took him to the tourism office.

I went too.

Here they proceeded to give Asshat a lovely length of rope with which to hang himself.

Figuratively, people. I know I was in Africa, but let’s not go crazy, here.

They let him tell his side of the story, which was mostly accurate. He left out the part where he accepted P2,400 from another group of tourists to take them to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and then never went through with the trip or refunded the money.

He also neglected to mention that he didn’t have a guide license. But the tourism officials were pleased to remind him. They also pleasantly reminded him that, being unlicensed, it was illegal for him to accept any money from us or take us on any trip. And then, quite genially, they read the law to him, making sure to point out and explain all the places where he’d broken it.

And they read the penalty: a fine of up to P20,000 (about $4,000, in a country where the average yearly income is closer to P10,000) and two years in jail.

They let him argue for a while, but when they were bored, they presented him with a simple choice: “Next we will be going to the police. But these people want their money back and are leaving tomorrow. So you can either refund them the entire amount they paid — all P1,500, because it was illegal for you to accept any money at all—or you can face criminal charges and take the P20,000 fine and two years in jail. Which would you prefer?”

And they waited for an answer.

I’ll have you know that I almost managed to keep a straight face during this entire exchange.

Theoretically, the story should have ended there. Asshat had shown us a check for P1,560 made out to his self-owned company that he was going to cash to pay us back. The police agreed to our arrangement and asked that Asshat and I return after the bank to confirm that all had gone as planned. And the tourism official dropped us off at the bank and went to lunch, proud of a job well done.

But Asshat isn’t called Asshat for nothing.

He didn’t have a bank account at that bank. Or, actually, any bank account in the name of his company (or so he claimed). So he couldn’t cash the check.

After an embarrassing altercation in front of the poor accounts manager who Asshat forced to explain this to me, I started angrily stomping back to the police to file charges. I had had enough, as I repeatedly told the ever full-of-excuses Asshat.

Somehow, he talked me into a taxi to find someone who owed him money. As we drove well past where I had thought we were going and past the part of town I was familiar with, I began to realize how alone in that cab I was—no one knew where I was, I had no phone, and I didn’t even have my wallet on me, because I hadn’t been planning to leave the park when I suddenly was asked to accompany Asshat to the tourism office.

Maybe it wasn’t so smart to get in that cab.

Luckily, I was only left with my thoughts for a few minutes, because we soon pulled up to a house with many of Asshat’s now familiar trainees milling around in front, one of whom came directly to the car and, to my utter shock, handed him a giant wad of cash.

Which he handed to me.

It was P1,000, P300 short of what he owed us, but far more than I ever expected to see. I was so surprised (and relieved at not being murdered) that I let him take me directly back to the park instead of going back to the police station as we should have done.

So that’s the very, very long version of what happened. Sorry y’all—I didn’t mean to go on for this long. But dealing with Asshat kept us busy, which was good, because the volunteer work sadly did not.

And I did get to see a side of Botswana that most tourists do not. I was very impressed with all the officials and police I met. Everyone was friendly and helpful, and, contrary to the stereotypes you may have of Africa, fully expectant that laws should be followed and enforced, and that it was their job to make sure that laws were followed and enforced. Of course it helped that I was a “rich” American, but there was never any indication that they would have been less helpful had I been a Motswana.

So now you’ve heard about baboons, running with zebras, and the worst tour guide ever.

And I’ve been telling Africa stories all week, so I’ve lost sight of what’s interesting. Is there anything else you all want to hear about? Ask away. Your wish is my command and other such nonsense.

In running news, I have a new ache. My left hip/groin muscle started acting up yesterday morning after about a mile of what had been shaping up to be a great morning run. I cut my run short and took today off, but I’m starting to think I might not be doing this whole running thing correctly.

I think I’m going to buy a book about running form. I feel like I’ve heard a lot of you all talking about ChiRunning—is that what you’d recommend?

Monday, August 08, 2005

People: almost as cool as zebras

So the last time I went running in Africa (also the second time. But let’s not dwell, hm?) was two weeks ago on Sunday.

It was a gorgeous clear day, as were all the days I spent in Africa (sigh, why am I back in DC for August?) and I rolled out of my tent around 8 am, prodded by my tentmate who annoyingly reminded me of the solemn vow I had made the day before that I *would* run that morning, no excuses.

The air was starting to warm up from the sun that had risen an hour before, but it was still crisp and cool—the temperature dropped to the 30s and 40s at night and reached the 80s by mid afternoon. A fact which, after three weeks, still never failed to surprise me. “It’s so cold,” I would complain every evening after sundown. “It was so hot, like, three hours ago! What happened?!”

I’m super bright.

But on that Sunday morning, in shorts and a long-sleeve Coolmax shirt, I ran through the trails around our campsite towards the river (filled with water flowing from Angola, and getting deeper and wider every day we were there). As I cleared the last trees and bushes to get to the shore, I looked across the river where there were three zebras on a sandbar, drinking.

My sudden appearance startled them, and they ran towards me to the shore a little upstream. I was running in that direction, so every time the zebras stopped, they saw me approaching, and they would run away a little farther.

I was holding my breath, wondering how long the zebras would continue to run alongside the river before they gave up and ran inland into the bush. But for probably five straight minutes, we continued this maneuver. Which meant that for at least five minutes, I was running with zebras.

I ran along the river for a few kilometers, then ran inland along trails for a few more, eventually returning to the riverbank on my way home, for a total of about 90 minutes of running. In that time, I saw zebras at least three more times, including a huge, solitary zebra who silently watched me pass by him on the trail a few yards away.

Normally I quake in fear at the thought of a long run sans iPod or running group, but somehow? I managed not to get bored.


Even though I’m not in Team in Training anymore, I like to pretend that I am.

That includes waking up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning to get in my long run.

I wake up, put on my Team in Training shirt, give myself a pep talk a la Coach Everyman, and yell “Go Team” to everyone that passes.

Okay, all of that is true except for the part about putting on the TNT shirt, giving myself a pep talk, and yelling “Go Team.”

But I think the waking up part is the most impressive, don’t you?

This Saturday, I got myself out of the door by 7:15, planning to drive to the Capital Crescent trail to get in 8 miles before the heat made me want to die. I like going someplace special to do long runs, because they get associated with the idea of long runs, as opposed to running around my neighborhood, where I’m conditioned to want to stop after 4-5 miles.

So there I am, all psyched up and?

The car won’t start.

If I have one fault (I concede nothing!) it’s that I refuse to believe anybody when they tell me something I don’t want to hear.

Several people warned me that leaving my car to sit around unused for the entire month of July might not be the best plan.

I rolled my eyes.

I did ask my friend to drive it around the block once when she came to water my plants. If she felt like it.

And she did. She drove it from one end of the parking lot to the other. Once.

Which seemed perfectly sufficient to me. Until 7:15 am on Saturday.

I thought about going back to bed right then. But I was already dressed and ready with my water belt and everything, so with a supreme effort of will, I got out of the car and started running, planning to go 45 minutes out on the trail in Rock Creek Park (hey, am I revealing too much about where I live? Are any of you stalkers who are going to use this information to find and kill me?) and then coming back a slightly shorter way for a total of about 80 minutes, which I figured would be about 8 miles.

I had my iPod, but no running group, and there was a shocking lack of zebras to accompany me (though I did pass the National Zoo).

It was long, slow, and humid, and the time crawled by.

After about six years of running, it was finally 45 minutes later, and I turned around, dreading the return half of the trip.

As I was being passed by the same girl for the second time (coming and going), I slowed a bit to let another man right behind her pass me as well. But then I felt his hand on my back, pushing me to speed up again, and he said, “don’t mind me, I’m going to stay behind you. I have 20 miles to run today, and you’re going to help.”

He was training for his 8th marathon, about to go on vacation with his wife for three weeks, and he wanted to get in a good long run before he left. But he was in advance of his training group’s schedule (I think), so he was on his own. And he wanted to use me as a pace setter.

We chatted for a few minutes, but the trail was narrow and busy so I pulled ahead to run without getting flattened by bikers. I had been ready to stop and walk, but I was energized by our conversation.

Plus, there was no way I was going to stop while someone was looking.

It was a little disconcerting to know that someone was watching me, but I enjoyed the feeling of having a connection to someone else out there. And as we pulled up to an intersection, he asked me which way I was going. To the left was the short way home. To the right was the long way—the way he was going. I told him I wasn’t sure which way I wanted to go, and he immediately told me to continue on with him. The trail was a bit wider and less busy, so we began running side by side and chatting, the way that you can do with perfect strangers on long runs. The last couple miles flew by, and not just in my perception of them—I was running faster. Before I knew it, I was back home (he was continuing north for another 7 or 8 miles).

Not exactly a zebra, but pretty cool nonetheless.


I will finish the saga of Guide Asshat, eventually. I didn’t see any hands raised at the end of my last post about him, which is good, because in fact he did not show up with our refund that Tuesday as promised. In fact, he didn’t show up at all.

Friday, August 05, 2005

I'm not lying

I was in Africa, and now I have proof!

Click HERE to see my (not so) fabulous photos.

Naomi + poler

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Cultural tourism, my ass

You want to hear something amazing?

I went running this morning.

On my way home, I set today as my start again date. I figured that it would give me enough time to get over jet lag and whatever else and reasonably expect to be able to get out of bed in the morning to run (because it’s too, too hot to run after work in the summer here).

So this was the plan.

But in my wildest imaginings, I never expected to stick to the plan. It’d been a month since I’d been running regularly, and I was fully and completely out of the habit. No way was this little intention going to be enough to get me going.

Yesterday, I tried to make a running date with my officemate, but she has the flu and didn’t feel up to it.

So, with little doubt about the outcome, I nevertheless set my alarm early enough to get in a short run, and went to sleep.

And then, when the time came, I woke up. And got up. And put on my running shoes. And went out the door and started running.


And you know what? It felt great.

I’m definitely a little out of shape, but it wasn’t tragic. And the month of (sort of) rest has helped heal all the little aches and pains I got from building up my mileage so quickly this spring. I’m hoping that if I’m careful to rebuild my mileage now, they won’t come back.

Of course, this is only day one. Let’s see if I can keep this up….


In other Believe it Or Not news, two days of eating fruits and veggies and sleeping well have finally beaten down this flu and sore throat that plagued me my entire last week in Botswana.

There might be something to this healthy living thing after all.


But you all wanted to hear about Guide Asshat.

Actually, his real name is Mr. Chapman, and his company is called Termite Mound Guide Training, which I am telling you now so that should any of you ever go to Botswana, or if you know anyone who does, you will know exactly who to avoid.

Now, this story is probably far less exciting than your imaginings of it. It’s also very, very long. So I will try to be concise and entertaining. We’ll see how it goes.

If this were a movie, the trailer would go sort of like this (please imagine the following intoned by the deep, booming voice of the movie promo guy):

Three westerners alone in the land where lions roam. They thought they were hiring a guide to lead them safely through the baboon-riddled Okavango Delta. They thought they were in for the trip of their lifetime.

[cue dischordant music and the following montage:
shot: three white people huddled at a gate in the dark;
shot: tents ripped open and clothes strewn all over the ground,
shot: three whites and a black man in khaki arguing amidst the shadows and flames of a raging campfire;
shot: an empty mokoro (dugout canoe) floating on shallow water;
shot: more arguing;
shot: baboons circling;
shot: hippos bellowing,
shot: more arguing;
shot: one white girl and one black man walking into the bush in the early dawn;
shot: a land rover bouncing along bush roads, the passengers silently taking in the passing scenery. ]

They thought wrong.

Hee. Hollywood always sensationalizes things.

I’m not usually one for hiring guides to begin with. The whole pre-packaged bus tour where they tell you where to go, what to eat, and what to look at all day long is really not for me. I’m all for finding my own way, and if I get lost, all the better, because that’s when the really interesting stuff tends to happen. That’s when you’re forced to ask people for help and read a map and end up in a neighborhood you might never have otherwise seen. But, the way I see it, you hire a guide for two reasons:
1) to facilitate the journey so that you see and do everything you want to in an organized and efficient manner; and
2) to help guard against inexperience and danger in an unfamiliar place.

And in the Okavango, we really didn’t have much choice. It’s hard to get to Moremi Game Reserve (an open protected area in the inner delta where you find the most wildlife) — you need a sturdy four wheel drive vehicle — and hard to find your way around on the roads once you’re there. Add the danger of lions, hyenas, crocodiles, and who knows what else, and you really need someone who knows what they’re doing.

But it’s also very expensive — Botswana maximizes its profit and minimizes the ecological impact by charging very high prices for safaris there, thereby limiting the number of tourists.

So we (= me, Gabriele and Daniela, two Italians volunteering with me) figured we’d have to shop around a bit to find something good that we could afford.

But on our first day in the park, as we woke up from our impromptu camp near the gate, where we set up the night before when we discovered that nobody at the park knew we were coming or had any provisions for us, we were asked to participate in a census of the animals (yeah, you take the good with the bad on this vacation).

And as I walked the length of the park, counting zebras, impalas, and kudu, I discovered that I wasn’t walking anything close to a straight line when I bumped into another counter, who should have been at minimum 20 meters to my left.

We began chatting, and he revealed that, in addition to training wildlife guides (one of whom was leading that morning’s park census) he led tourist safaris. He seemed knowledgeable and friendly, and appropriately chagrined at the pathetic outcome of the census (from where we walked, we could see several other bunches of counters, which meant the result would be totally invalid).

The prices he quoted seemed ridiculously high, until I realized he was talking about pula instead of dollars, and so I took his contact information and brought it back to G and D at the camp.

We liked his prices and his promises (two days, one night, in Moremi, a traditional mokoro trip at Mboma Island) and we liked that he was a local, as opposed to the South Africans who seemed to own all the other budget companies.

There were some warning signs that we ignored (all of a sudden, it seemed, we had to pay our own park fees; it wasn’t okay to pay in dollars after all; he didn’t have the itinerary ready when he said he would) but we swallowed our doubts, paid in advance, and got ourselves to the gate at our agreed departure time: 4 am.

It is SERIOUSLY cold at 4 am in Botswana. All of the day’s heat has dissipated, and sunrise isn’t for another three hours. I was wearing long sleeves, two layers of fleece, and a wool hat, and I was still shivering.

And our guide? Didn’t show up until 5:30.

Five. Thirty.

We? Were not pleased.

He made his apologies and excuses, offered us a significant refund (to be paid on Monday—how could we be so naïve?), and convinced us to continue with the trip.

So off we went, to run several last minute errands for him, to pick up cigarettes for the driver, to pick up his trainees and assistant guide (who had overslept and weren’t ready, even though we were nearly 2 hours late), and finally, FINALLY, were on our way.

The day went passably well. He didn’t always seem to understand what we were saying or have appropriate replies to our questions, and his trainees needed to cook a full hot lunch (it took 2 hours) rather than having a quick, cold lunch, as we’d agreed to earlier and brought for ourselves, but on the whole, we were beginning to forgive him for his lateness.

Then, after our abbreviated afternoon game drive (see: lateness; long lunch, above), we returned to camp to find all of our belongings strewn in the dirt, and long tears in D’s brand new tent.

The baboons, they had attacked.

Guide Asshat: “I knew I should have left someone back here to stand guard.”

Hmmm. You think?

After dinner and a lengthy argument to convince his lazy-ass driver to take us to the bathroom (we were forbidden to walk alone or to go to into the bush because of predators, but you would have thought we were asking the driver for a kidney, instead of for him to, you know, do his JOB), we were hit with the worst news.

Guide Asshat: “So this is a holiday weekend and there are no more bookings available for the mokoro tomorrow. Plus, it turns out that we have to be out of the park by 11 am, so we wouldn’t have had time to go there anyway. It takes 4 hours to get from here to the gate. We’ll have to leave first thing in the morning.”

Uh, what? We had agreed to a TWO day trip. We had paid for a TWO day trip. And our itinerary clearly included a mokoro trip on the morning of day TWO.


It’s funny. I was so angry at the time, but I can’t even manage to channel that outrage to write this. It was such an utter failure: he was late, incompetent, and completely reneged on every agreement we had made. But we were still in Moremi, it was beautiful, and there were elephants. I have pictures of the elephants.

There were further indignities the next day, as when he took us to a campground/gift shop for “cultural tourism” (what?) and when he demanded time after time that we take his picture in various poses and backgrounds (yeah, right), but I was beyond thrilled when we finally got back “home” (it hadn’t felt so much like home before we left on that disastrous trip), where our Batswana friends were excited to see us and Ras was cooking lunch.

The only thing left was to get our 900 pula refund for the parts of the trip that didn’t happen. He was supposed to come on Tuesday morning at 7 am.

Raise your hand if you think he showed up.

Stay tuned as the saga continues…

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Out of Africa


I’m back.

Marginally worse for the wear: a bad cold/flu plus pink-eye do not a fun 18-hour flight make.

Though, is there really anything that could make such a long flight fun?

Actually, on the way there, 18 hours was hardly long enough, because every minute brought me closer to an unfamiliar continent where I would be on my own without really knowing where I was going or what I was doing. And while none of my worst case scenarios were called into action (unlike for poor UK Helen, whose story I may get to eventually) there were plenty of occasions for me to question my calm acceptance of the vague and disorganized nature of this trip.

For instance, when the customs officer in Botswana asked me where I was staying that night, and I had no answer.

Or when my bus arrived in Gaborone an hour early, and I had no way to contact the man picking me up, and so sat at the gas station in the dark for 45 minutes with my gigantic backpack, hoping someone might show up eventually.

And a little bit hoping that no one would show up, so I could go to a hotel and just bag this crazy plan once and for all.

But the coordinator finally did appear, and as I followed him to the little Honda blaring hip hop with throbbing bass with a dread-locked stranger behind the wheel, and as we made the hour-long trip to Mochudi, picking up and dropping off hitch-hikers along the way, I realized that I was well and truly committed.

You already know how it turned out: fabulously. Now I’m home, and I’m jealous of the two Italians and UK Helen who are still there. I miss my new Batswana** friends and am sad to think I may never see them again.

And I may well decide to become one of those horrible people who says things like, “well, in Africa, things are completely different.” And, “everything is so commercial in America.” And, “you wouldn’t understand. It’s an African thing.”


Of course, there are some things that thrill me about being back. The hot shower was going to be one of them, but then I stayed in a hotel in Gaborone and got an early taste. Such a glorious thing.

I’m pleased to have my clothing. It is true that you can wear the same few pairs of pants every day for a month. But it is less true that you will still like those pants. Especially when you’re staying with a bunch of pretty boys wearing flashy Sean John and 50 Cent jerseys and immaculately-kept Addidas and Air Jordans and you feel like the dirty, dowdy white girl.

Today, I’m wearing a dress and jewelry and pretty sandals and none of them are covered in dust, nor do I have dirt under my fingernails, and for this reason, I say, it’s good to be home.

Also good news: the food.

I ate things in Africa that I never thought I would touch, and don’t really plan to eat again.

If I were talking about mopani worms or odd cuts of meat or other interestingly exotic foods, that might be okay.

But I’m talking about canned meat, of the Spam variety, but without pork.

And canned fish that you eat whole with bones and eggs.

And mayonnaise on pasta.

And more red meat (on average, two meals a day) in one month than I’ve eaten in the last five years.

And more white starches (potatoes, rice, pasta, pap (=maize polenta)) than I thought I could stand.

It’s not that the food wasn’t good. It’s just that the overall composition of the diet was very much not what I’m used to or like.

On a typical day we’d have bread for breakfast (homemade, cooked on the fire, and totally delicious, especially when eaten the night before, still hot from the fire). Sometimes we’d have cornflakes with warmed milk (surprisingly tasty). And once or twice, we each got an apple.

Lunch and dinner were interchangeable. Usually a full plate of the starch, topped with some sort of red meat concoction. Maybe some stewed carrots and tomatoes and beef (canned or, on a good day, fresh). Or maybe without the carrots. Occasionally there would be salad (grated cabbage with mayonnaise and occasionally carrots), and often we’d have as side dishes canned baked beans or chakalaka (a pretty tasty vegetable thing, tomato based with some carrots and other stuff).

It wasn’t untasty and it was certainly filling, but definitely not the nutrient-dense, practically vegetarian diet I’d been enjoying until then. And let’s just say that Immodium AD was the wrong gastro-intestinal medication to have on hand. Of course, nutrition wasn’t driving the dietary choices, cost was. Botswana is a desert country that imports almost all fresh produce, expensively, from South Africa. They grow maize, sorghum, and cows, and our food, with plenty of jarred sauces, canned side dishes, tomatoes, onions, and carrots, and frequently fresh meat, was on the richer side of things.

Still, this morning, as I ate my oatmeal with frozen berries, bought a banana on the way to work, and had an unbelievably decadent Indian lunch (it’s restaurant week in DC), I had to admit that there are some good things about home.

Anyway, no turning back now. I’m home, back at work, and soon I will regale you with fantastical tales of terrible tour guides (way over-hyped at this point), mischievous baboons, and a few pictures of elephants.

Didya miss me?

** Linguistic note: Botswana = the country; Motswana= person from the country; Batswana = people (plural) from the country; and Setswana = language of the country. All clear?