Saturday
Sep212013

::BENIN::

 

After visits to 6 or 7 communities in and around Cotonou, Benin, it's time for us to go. We woke up before the sun came up this morning to catch an early flight to Monrovia, Liberia, only to find out at the airport that flight for the first leg of that journey, Cotonou-Accra, Ghana, was cancelled. No word as to why, but we're in transit limbo here so I've got a chance to blog-a-bit. Sadly, there's no rapidair service to Ghana or Liberia from Cotonou, so at this stage, it's not clear when we will be taking off. TIA!

The last couple of days have been an incredible whirlwind with visits with local RTP staff, urban and rural based play programs, local leaders (like a mayor and a king and the pope of voodoo, NBD), but most importantly kids.  Kids from Benin are like kids from anywhere - a little shy at first, but easy to break the ice with (various methods, including sharing your sunglasses, high-fives, taking their picture and showing them the screen, goofy dancing, sacred offerings like caramels or a chiclet, any kind of kickable object - ball shaped or otherwise, have all proven effective), once we were all friends the games could commence, and general silliness coupled with an eventual valuable life-lesson would ensue.

Our first stop was Ouidah.  As soon as we left the city we abandoned fairly familiar french for local languages like "Foh", with the exception of an occasional "d'accord" or "merci", Foh is impossible to follow along with... I mean, all native African languages are undecipherable for us, but Foh has a particular subtlety that renders my pathetically uni-lingual jaw agape. The kids in Ouidah formed two circles and we played some limbo and sang some songs. The lessons were based on avoiding peer pressure and being a confident leader. The games were meant to be embarassing, so that the older kids would fall on their butts (in limbo, being short is a massive advantage), and the younger kids would help them up. So when I fell on my butt, some younger kids helped me up... and we all high-fived. Then we danced around like goofballs and laughed at eachother and totally forgot that we don't speak the same language. We were speaking fluent goof-ball, so it didn't matter.

Benin was one of the 5 infamous slave trade ports, and there is a monument on the beach where countless men and women were treated like commodities and shipped off to Europe and North America as slaves. We drove down the slave road where men and women in iron shackles were lead and visited the beach called "the point of no return". As we listened to a short presentation by a man who works at the monument I couldn't help but be ashamed of humanity's most atrocious act. I'm glad we live in a world that learns generation by generation. I'm heartened that humanity tends to progress towards a more "human" ideal. 

Next we attended a short women's soccer game (game was short, the young women were mostly average height). Most girls ran the full pitch barefoot in higher-than-ankle grass. It was physical and intense, and the girls were excellent technicians.  After the game we watched a skit demonstrating a discussion between parents and an adolescent girl about her sexuality. It was an excellent forum for this demonstration - a captive audience of young teens, some community leaders, and the skit was performed by their peers. The parental roles were parodized by hilarious and oversized outfits (they wore their grandad's clothes, they looked incredible). Fun times were had by all!

Off we went to visit the Voodoo pope. I haven't done any research on who exactly we were to meet, but I will say that his house was... interesting, to say the absolute least. We were a little late, so after waiting for a little while outside in our sock-feet (no shoes in the Voodoo pope's house), we were told that the pope wasn't getting dressed for late people, so we left. I would have just as soon stayed on the soccer pitch.

On day 2 we woke up early and jogged on the beach, had a good breakfast of hardboiled eggs, pineapple juice, croissants with nutella-like chocospread and fruit salad. I had two large coffees with breakfast, but I still passed out hard in the van on the 3 hour drive on the bumpiest roads ever. While asnooze I smacked my head on the window so many times I'm almost certainly concussed, though the blurry groggy brain is also thanks to the anti-malarials we're all on. Hoppin' on goofballs!

We drove through the woodsy jungle for hours, and finally arrived at the King's abode. King Agbomansoatin Kponan of Ahouannonzoun is a the secretary general of Renafo, Benin, and he's also a Voodoo specialist of incurable diseases. We attended a kind of debate, or a forum, about child protection. There were speeches and presentations, thanks to RTP Benin's Jean most of it was translated to english or french... but I still may have nodded off once or twice. The king likes to talk! He's the guy in green garb, below. Yeah that's right, I had an audience with the KING. Take a backseat Lebron, this guy is the real deal.

After his speeches the neighbourhood kids put on a great skit about voodoo culture and staying in school. The king has recently made a judgement so that kids can fast track their voodoo initiation, which used to take up to 3 years, down to a week or two, so that they can concentrate on traditional education. He said that science and voodoo are complementary, so the kids need both in their lives to work and be fully developed. On our drive back we stopped for a really brave midday meal, spicy little whole fish on rice with smashed up peppers and Cocacola. I didn't eat the heads, but they were tasty.

Since we had a few hours to kill, CBC's Scott and Mark and I went into the central market of Cotonou to run around and grab some cool shots. I've been to markets in Beijing, Bamako, and crazy crowded places all over... but this was NUTS. You can buy anything. What do you need? Replacement parts for your Yamaha 125? An inflatable swan? A whisky bottle full of cashews? Textiles in every conceivable colour, shade and design? A goat's head? Sugarcane? A flip-phone? stereo equipment? smoked fish? spices, powders, grains and granulated who-knows-what? Yup, they've got it.

We just got some news... Ghana has granted us Visas for tonight and tomorrow, so we're leaving Benin now and staying overnight in Accra, and flying to Monrovia tomorrow.

My only problem is I have 0 blank pages left in my passport, so it better not be more than a stamp-visa, or I'm staying in the airport overnight. I need a new passport when I get home!

We're off, check back soon!

**UPDATE** Our flight to Accra went to Abidjan instead. I was keen to go to the Ivory Coast, but we decided as a team to go to Monrovia tomorrow... so I'm going swimming.

 

 

Wednesday
Sep182013

::RTP - BENIN::

Our Right to Play Canada envoy team (CBC's Brenda, Scott and Mark, RTP's Leah and Ashton, and I) arrived safely in Cotonou, Benin this evening.  We are visiting the head office and some local RTP programs tomorrow until Saturday, and then we go to Monrovia, Liberia to visit their programming for the remainder of our trip.

The trip was good and team morale is high. We're all excited for the days to come, and I'll be blogging about it right here.

So check back soon!

Tuesday
Aug202013

:Sochi: 

photo: Pride Toronto 2013

I have resisted the temptation to write a long-winded blog about why the 2014 Olympics in Sochi shouldn't be boycotted because I don't think there is much of an argument for the contrary.  Boycotts don't accomplish anything positive and nobody has ever been a significant part of progressive change from their couch.  I've read and agreed with insightful articles by Patrick Burke, Bruce Arthur and many other great athletes and writers, and I think it's pretty clear.

But then I read an article in Now magazine by Susan G. Cole.  While she agrees that a boycott isn't worth discussing, she used some language which inspired me to chime in.

So I wrote this:

While I appreciate, respect, and even share many of the opinions of Susan G Cole, as an Olympian I need to yank my socks up and defend our “obsessed” diaspora of “selfish” dream-chasers a bit.  First, I’m shocked that a feminist would take such a strong stance about what I do with my body.  I choose to train really hard and try to be the best at something. Why would you begrudge me for that?   

Here’s the thing Sue: If the Olympics were in a perfect place, we wouldn’t be talking about gay rights.  Nope, if they were in Stockholm, we’d be excited for meatballs.  If the Olympics were in Vienna, we’d be leiderhosen shopping.  Instead, the Olympics are in the stone ages, and behold! We’re talking about it!  Just like when they were in China.  They opened up their doors in an unprecedented way, and by all accounts, those doors have remained more open than they were before.  Sure, they still have issues.  But I’m not so quick to call the pot black, or the pipeline the colour of bitumen, in our case.  Every country has issues.  I’m not suggested that Russia’s are justifiable, they most certainly are not. But I see the positive in all this nonsense, as you do, albeit from a slightly different point of view.

Not everyone likes the Olympic Games, and that’s good! I think people should disagree over things. To each their own. But whether you can identify with our silly spandex clad theatrics or not, you can’t deny that it gives pretty much everyone in the world something to squawk talk about, and in your case, something to write about, and presumably to be paid to write about.

So I’d ask that you’d simply consider the Olympics to be more than just a sports forum, it’s a forum for discussion, for change, for exchange.  It’s not just about the sports.  But it mostly is, and it’s also a big part of the reason gay rights are being so widely discussed right now, so please don’t take that away from the Olymps.  The Olympics do good.  They make role models, ambassadors, they create heroes, and provide inspiration and entertainment for billions.  They bring us together, not just to sweat and grunt and be proud of our colours, but also to talk, discuss, improve and progress.  I’m proud of all the Olympics does for the world, and I’m proud to be a member of a team whose dreams extend past the podium.

I'm glad we agree on the important things, and I'm glad we live in a place where it's okay to disagree, too. :)

 

Friday
Jun282013

PROUDLY MARCHING - TOGETHER

The Olympic Games have always been an example. Superficially, the Games are demonstrative of what the human body is physically capable of achieving. The records athletes break work to answer simple questions like; How fast can a person run? How high can a person jump? But the power of sport is capable of producing much deeper results.
 
The Olympic Games can do far more than simply set the bar of human athletic potential. I believe that sport’s greatest obligation to society is the cultivation of an open, welcoming and inclusive environment. So it seems natural (if not overdue) that the Canadian Olympic Team is joining in Canada’s Pride celebrations this year, and hopefully forever.

Many people, myself included, publicly commended the NBA’s Jason Collins on his courage interviewing with Sports Illustrated for his ‘coming out’ article a couple months ago. However, as the news of his lifestyle made increasing headlines, many people questioned why a player’s sexual orientation matters, why it was newsworthy.

The reason a person’s sexual orientation is still worthy of discussion is due to the unfortunate reality that it takes tremendous courage to be open about these sorts of things in 2013.

I don’t think it should have to take courage.

A truly open, accepting and compassionate society welcomes everyone to the field of play. So, Jason’s article and the discussion around it are indeed necessary, but hopefully only as a means to the end of that necessity.

The goal of every Olympian is more or less the same; we all want to be winners. In my experience, being happy is an essential step toward the podium. I’m on a Canadian Olympic Team that values diversity, and as role models I think we have a responsibility to our communities to promote a strong sense of personal identity. By embracing our identities, and fostering a safe and comfortable environment for our friends and teammates in which they can be themselves, I think we all win.

Pride is a celebration of love.

It’s a statement that love isn’t something to be merely tolerated, accepted or legalized. It’s something beautiful and natural and is also probably the single most important thing in the world. Pride is about celebrating something positive, progressive, and fun.

It’s also an awesome parade, one in which this Olympian, and ally, is unbelievably proud to be marching with his teammates and neighbours right here in Toronto this Sunday.

Hope to see you there!

Tuesday
Jun042013

K2, Something New!

(pictured above, many fast men's K2 boats going really hard in Poznan. One from Holland, one from Poland, one from Germany, one from Austria. Burloak pictured in Canadian colours in the middle there)

"Great things aren't just worth working hard for, but also waiting for as well.  Patience is like a virtue, or something." - somebody very wise

I've taken a big break from my usual routine for the past few months.  Paddling my boat has become the thing I look forward to doing everyday, once all the other things are taken care of.  I needed (and continue to need) to diversify my portfolio of works a little, and to focus on all of the things that are really important that don't involve "left-stroke, right-stroke".

Happy to say that I'm very much enjoying the process of "normalization", and stoked that I still seem to have plenty of strokes left in these elbows.

I'm freshly home from our 2013 European Tour, which started in the beautiful pseudo-European city of Montreal a few weeks ago, with our National Team Selection Trials. A concise update is in order...

  • Montreal trials were good, just a little windy. I won the K1 1000m race with my K2 buddy Brady a close 2nd.  The young gun crew of Rob Clarke and Andrew Jessop bettered us in the K2 1000m by a length, but by finishing 2nd we earned the privilege of racing at the World Cups.
  • Our first Euro stop was Racice, Czech Republic (pre-flood).  Brady and I had some ups and downs but thrived on the ups and learned from the downs.  K2 at this world-class level is a brand new beast for me/us, so we're amped to be partaking in a learning process. We were 9th in the 1000m, 10th in the 500m and I raced the 5km smashup and managed to get back into 9th by the finishline after being probably last at one point.  Fun times were had by all.
  • I went to Sweden for a week in between the world cups for some lox and latenight sunshine. Also there was some wind.
  • I arrived in Poznan Poland for World Cup 2 after some train rides through 6 cities ending in -köping (Swedish for -market).  Hopped back into the teamboats with a K4 session with our speedy U23 dudes (Nice work fellas!), and back to the grind in K2 with Brady.  We sorted a few little thingies out, and started feeling fast again.  We had a good regatta, contributing one silver and one bronze (1000m and 500m respectively) to the 13-thousand medal haul Team Canada managed to pilage from Poznan. Respect to all of Team Canada, much thanks to our coaches, and Bainer and Bernie for keeping us logistically and muscularly in check. Congrats to everyone who raced, but especially Gabriel Beauchesne-Sevigny for his 2 Golds and a Silver in distances ranging from 200m (a 38second race) to the 5000m (over 20minutes)... you're a dynamo. AND, an engineer! Felicitations mec.

Now I am home in Toronto, eager to get back on the water and up north for some cabin time. I have a summer reading list, some fun travel plans and some new challenges ahead.  As my friend Kurt always used to write: "You are what you pretend to be, so be careful about who you pretend to be".  I'm going to carry on pretending to be a happy K2 paddler with lots of great friends and teammates and some fun races coming up for the time being.  See you on the water, friends!

(pictured above, Brady Reardon of Burly Decal and Sign and Adam van Koeverden celebrate their silver in K2 1000m with smiles and flowers)