Monday, October 19, 2009

Philanthropy at the Windhoek Cycle Classic


Working for the UN has its privileges. The back of my UNICEF identification card tells me so: “The holder of this card is an official of the United Nation, and enjoys the protection of the UN Convention on Privileges and Immunities.” It also has its rewards. My reward will come in a month when I can personally deliver shoes to the needy, shoeless kids who cheered me as I cycled through their simple settlements during Windhoek’s 10th Annual Cycle Classic Race.

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true, I am working. The African vacation is over. Even more bizarre, I am volunteering. My project for UNICEF is to organize the distribution of 80,000 pairs of donated CrocsTM shoes and sandals to the orphans and vulnerable children of Namibia. My boss is a friendly South African named Matthew who enjoys being outside and active, mostly on a bike. On Friday Matthew tells me that he is competing in a bike race at the weekend, and offers me the use of his spare bike. Before I really think about the endurance required to ride a bike for long distances in the desert heat, I am registered for the 65 km division.

Jarrett ‘The Butterscotch Stallion’ Loubser, host of my Windhoek morning radio show, welcomes the 1400 racers at the starting/finish line with his usual crass sense of humor delivered with machine-gun-like intonation over the PA system. I listen to “The Butterscotch Stallion” every weekday morning, and today his voice is jarring and unexpected. It is eight o’clock on a clear Sunday morning, and I should not be listening to him. I should be in bed, sleeping or contemplating my breakfast menu.

Instead I am perched on the uncomfortable bike seat, wedged amongst hundred of spandex wearing, helmeted, cycling enthusiasts eagerly waiting to attack the course. People, you know the people who should know, claim Windhoek lies inside the caldera of an extinct volcano. They say that this accounts for the unusually moderate and comfortable weather we enjoy. The problem today is that I will have to climb out of the caldera and leave town well behind, before returning to climb the slopes again to finish. It’s been many a year since I rode a bike, and as ‘The Butterscotch Stallion’ says “Ready, Steady, Go”, I fear this is not the way to get back in the saddle.

The 65 km bikers stay compact as we wind through the residential streets of Olympia. At the intersections police officers block vehicular traffic, and wave us through. Most of the cyclists ride sleek bikes made for road riding. I am on a slightly more cumbersome and heavy mountain bike. I am relieved to find out the gears and brakes are working as I breeze through the flat, tree-lined streets. With a left turn onto Robert Mugabe Avenue, however, the breezing is replaced by sheer effort as we begin the first accent.

In the lowest gear of my 24, my legs spin easily, but the mountain bike climbs slowly. I keep my head down and look only at the ground as I pass the familiar wrought-iron fence of the palatial residence of President Pohamba. Wheels approach from behind and pass me continuously along the climb, but it does not bother me. I know I have a long way to go, and I know this is not a sprint. Perhaps I will save some energy for a big sprint to the finish line.

At the summit of the first hill, only minutes into the race I am sweating profusely. What makes it worse is that sweat, mixed with sunscreen, is running down my forehead and into my eyes. I sit up in the saddle as I descend to dry the sweat on my face. The wind feels good as I coast down the hill towards Maerua Mall. At the bottom of the hill I follow the elongating chain of cyclists coasting past my apartment complex, and veering to the right onto Jan Jonker Road.

The Cycle Classic has four divisions: the 20, 30, 65, and 100 km. The 100 km riders went off first, followed by the 65 km division five minutes later, and so on and so forth. Every division has a different prefix on their bib number, to differential which riders are completing which distances. By the time I am pedaling in the up-market, largely Expat suburb known as Ludwigsdorf, and pass Matthew's wife and children cheering on the side of the street, I know how far behind I am. I have already been passed by what seems like the majority of the 35 km division, and am currently being caught by the adolescents in the 20 km division.

After Ludwigsdorf the route runs along Nelson Mandela Avenue before turning north into an industrial area. We pass massive factories, with towering chimneys, and ride a strong easterly wind carrying noxious coal fumes from the Van Eck power station. Beyond the power plant, the road narrows before we are directed to turn left at an intersection by a young man waving a small, red flag. This far outside of town, the police assistance has finished, and young volunteers guide the riders along the course. Of course, I have not seen a map of the course, so I am completely at the mercy of these volunteers.

Further on a girl stands before a ramp leading up the B1 Highway leading south, back into Windhoek. She yells, “30 kilo dis way!” as she brings her extended right arm and red flag from her thigh over her head repeatedly. Ahead, beyond an underpass, another volunteer waves a flag to direct racers onto the B1 Highway heading north. I must have ridden less fifteen kilometers, and assess my physical condition: my legs still feel strong, but my arse is getting sore. I want to turn towards the finish line, but I also want to ride my bike on the highway, just because it seems ridiculous. I pass the girl with the flag, and head to the next person, and merge onto the B1 Highway, northbound.

Vehicular traffic on this Sunday morning is light. Now that the race split cyclist traffic is also fairly light. The chain of cyclist has become a series of drips; one rider 200 meters ahead of me, and another some 200 meters behind. Occasionally I pass someone with a flat tire, their spirits as deflated as their tires. They crouch on the side of the highway, their chins resting on the offending wheel while the flaccid inner tube lies lifelessly on gravel beside it.

Namibian highways are not exactly like US highways. It is not uncommon to have cyclists ride along the shoulders while groups of pedestrians and livestock nonchalantly cross the road ahead of you. Pick-up trucks, known as bukkies, ply the highway with their beds full of people sitting with their heads bowed to keep out of the wind. In the bush highways are little more than two-lane roads, and there are very few exit ramps. While riding towards a weigh station, I glance over my shoulder to see a truck approaching with its turn signal on. The off-ramp is long, and he is going moving quickly with a full load of cattle. He is not going to give way to the Cycle Classic, so I stop the bike and let him pass.

Restarting is hard. My legs do not want to turn, and my arse is unwilling to climb back onto the saddle. There is a wind out of the east that somehow I did not notice until now. I push my legs down with my palms and press on. I slowly crawl along the highway until I reach the small farming community called Brakwater. At the Brakwater exit a young man with a red flag waves me off of the highway, and onto a paved district road. The road heads west towards the coast before meandering south towards Windhoek over red, rolling hills.

I ride through the dry, rocky scrubland, but with each turn my desire to continue lags. I think that I bit off more than I can chew. Old ladies riding alone and young kids riding with their fathers smile as they pass me. It feels like I have been riding for hours, but a glance at my phone tells me it has only been two. As I climb another hill, I see a small settlement on the crest of the hill and a few small silhouettes patrolling the road across from it. The settlement is nothing more that a collection of twenty corrugated iron shacks, each with its door open for ventilation. The silhouettes beside the road are children. I can tell that because they scream with high-pitched voices as another cyclist passes them.

The first child I meet is about two years old. He is overwhelmed by strange visitors that pass him, and can only stand by the side of the road with his fingers in his mouth and watch. The second child, perhaps his four year-old, older brother, starts running as I approach him, his bare toes throwing gravel into the air as he sprints. He sprints without looking where he is going, and only looks only into my eyes as he runs. He screams at me in a high-pitched voice. He wants to communicate something, but I cannot understand what he is saying. I don’t know if he is speaking English, a tribal language or Afrikaans, but I know that my ear cannot decipher his high-pitched squeals.

After twenty meters another boy, perhaps another brother, picks up the chase. This boy introduces himself with a double thumbs and a broad smile before following my bike up the hill. He is more shy that the middle boy, and runs beside me, pleading with his eyes. The four year-old lungs and legs show great stamina as he continues to run beside me and the other boy continues his unintelligible, piercing mantra. Perhaps because he is getting tired, or perhaps because I have time to slow my own rapid breathing, I finally understand what he is trying to say, “Give me CHO-CO-LATE.”

When the three brothers give up the chase, I pass another couple of boys who also cry out for chocolate. Perhaps in the Cycle Classic most riders stuff chocolates in their jerseys to eat and give away during the race. Perhaps that is the normal thing for cyclists to do in Namibia. I don’t know because I am not a cyclist. I am just the idiot who signed up to ride 65 kilometers in the hilly desert without having been on a bike for many years. I do not have chocolate.

After the small settlement the road descends before rising again. As I start to climb the next hill the smell of human feces smacks me in the face. I climb and try to breathe only through my mouth, but it doesn’t help stem the unpleasantness. In the Middle Ages travelers gauged the size of a city by how far away they could detect the smell of human waste. The further the smell carried, the larger the city was. I cannot see a settlement yet, but I know it will be larger than the first one.

The climb towards the settlement is again lined with groups of young children, all hoping for gifts of chocolate. As I pass the first group of children they all hold their hands out into the road. They realize that I don’t have chocolate, but hold out their hands to accept ‘high fives’ in lieu of the sweets. The children are dressed in tattered, soiled clothes, and none of them have shoes, but they all seem happy and wear smiles. They squeal with delight as I touch their hands, and for the time being I forget how tired I am. Having contact with the children is the only fun I have had this entire morning.

Because none of the children have shoes, and I make a mental note to revisit the settlement once the shipment of Crocs arrives, and make sure they get shoes. I am thinking about which NGOs serve children in this area when a vision suddenly hits me. It is the image of a cartoon water drop, bar of soap, and hand that is the logo for the current UNICEF hand washing program in Namibia.

UNICEF figures estimate that every day 5,000 children worldwide die of diarrhea and other diseases that could be prevented by having adequate sanitation systems. In Namibia less than 40% of the villages have these systems in place, and the majority of the vast population practices open defecation. The ability to wash hands with hot water and soap after contact with human waste would eradicate many of these needless deaths. The UNICEF office here recently launched a national campaign to educate the children of Namibia about personal hygiene, and raise awareness of the unsanitary reality within the poorer settlements. Suddenly I am glad that Matthew gave me riding gloves, and I am glad to be wearing them to protect myself from anything the children are carrying, and vice-versa. Sometimes it is good to have all the gear, even if I did not want to wear them at first.

After the second settlement I can see Windhoek in the valley beyond. Down a steep hill, in an area known as Soweto, the neighborhoods turn from corrugated iron shacks, to cinder block huts. Many people wander the streets, most wearing elegant and brightly-colored church outfits. Battered Toyota Corolla taxis prowl the streets looking for fares, and have no intention of giving the cyclists the right of way. At an intersection a policeman directs me left, and I follow his instructions. Approaching the next intersection, however, just beyond the pink compound of Soweto Market, there is no one to guide me, and there are no other cyclists around me.

I am coasting down a hill towards Independence Avenue. I know where I am, but I do not know where to go. It is a four-way intersection, so I have three choices. My house is left, and the town center is left, so, I turn left. Beyond the turn I enter the heavy traffic heading towards the city center. By the surprised look on the faces of people on the streets beside me, I know that I went the wrong way. This is not the way to the finish line. I can backtrack and rejoin the course, or ride home. At a red light, for the second time today, I assess my options and my physical condition.

My legs don’t feel that tired, but when I put my feet on the ground I feel unstable, like I just finished a long boat ride. My arse is sore, and does not want to sit on the thin foam rubber seat anymore. I am sure that I rode through the best part of the race already with the children, and I already have some photos and videos.

I never intended set any land-speed records and I never intended to win anything. I just wanted to do something different, and the Did Not Finish (DNF) label does not bother me this time. The race, for me, ends right here.

I stop at a gas station and call Meg to come get me. She arrives, and we have the bike loaded in ten minutes. I am glad to be done, and glad to be out of the sun. I rode for almost three hours, and that was definitely enough. I do, however, drive to the finish line to have a beer in the tent, and collect my medal. Some might say I do not deserve the medal, but I say I do. In fact, I might say that UNICEF should reimburse my entrance fee since I did research along the way and definitely found great kids who need, and deserve a free pair of CrocsTM to help them in their quest for CHO-CO-LATE.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Anniversary and Inaccuracy while Skydiving

Most couples exchange gifts and go out to dinner for their two-year anniversary of dating. Instead, Meg and I are sitting outside the lobby of a guesthouse, waiting to be picked up to skydive. It is 10 o’clock in the morning and we sit silently beside each other while fear and excitement vie for control of our thoughts. By ten twenty our anxiety is replaced by annoyance, and I ask the guesthouse receptionist to call the adventure tourism company to confirm our reservation.

On the tourist trail, there are hundreds of adventure activities to experience because it does not take much money for locals to start a company, and there are always wealthy clients eager to try something new. Some adventure tour operators adhere to safety regulations, while others are just after quick money, and do not. Research can often differentiate the good from the bad, but word-of mouth is the most trusted way of choosing an outfit to trust with life and limb. There is still risk involved, there is always risk, but I always feel a little better about a company when someone I know has patronized the company before, and survived.

Our word-of-mouth recommendation for skydiving in Namibia came from an enormous, and jovial Scottish man, Steve, and his Polish wife, Anetta. Meg and I met the couple on a volcano in Indonesia, only months after they had left Africa. The couple went skydiving in Namibia, and they raved about the company they dove with. Steve specifically told me to jump with his ‘Tandem Master’, Henry. I checked out the outfit on the Internet and found that it met my three necessary criteria, in order of importance: it was cheap, conveniently located, and boasted “an impeccable safety record.” It seemed like the perfect company to help us celebrate our anniversary.

The receptionist tells us that our skydiving reservation was moved from 10 to 11 o’clock because the conditions were not good for jumping yet. Swakopmund is a small, tourist town wedged between the huge sand dunes to the east, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. Fog often lingers over the German-inspired buildings in the morning, and dissipates in the early afternoon, and I understand that, but someone should have told us about the change. I start to question putting Meg’s and my life in their hands, and I want some reassurance from the receptionist about the quality of the skydiving company. What I get was not what I expected, or had been told on the Internet.

“Actually, when they first started they did have an accident.”
“Really? What happened?”
She reaches out her arm and points her index finger towards a poster on the wall. The poster promotes the company, and is inlaid with five photographs. Her finger leads my eyes to the photograph in the center of the frame.
“That man in the back is Henry, and he died in a tandem jump. I don’t know the technical details, but I know that he put himself under the woman he was taking, and she survived, but he did not. He sacrificed himself for the client. I am sure you should be fine.”

Meg and I look at each other and force smiles. This is not what I expected to hear after reading about the company’s ‘impeccable safety record.’ Meg and I walk outside to discuss the situation. We have forty minutes to reconsider our decision to dive with them, especially since we have not yet turned over any cash.

Meg’s philosophy on life and death is fairly simple, and despite the recent news her conviction does not waiver. She simply says, “If I am going to go I would rather go doing something fun. This is going to be fun, and we should do it.”
“I am sure we should be fine,” I agree.

A van collects us just before eleven, and we are the fifth and sixth clients in it. No one speaks or introduces themselves as we drive to the company’s office. Meg decides to jump with a cameraman who will film her descent while falling with her, and I opt for the guide to video the jump from a ‘handy cam’ strapped to his wrist as we fall. Once the bills are paid we are all back in the van to go out to the airport.

Actually airport is an overstatement. The van drives west past the town’s small airport, and turns north into the vast, brown desert beyond. After ten minutes we stop at a collection of brown, fabric tents set on wooden palettes behind a ring of green, plastic chairs. In front of the tents, and chairs is a long, narrow swath of worn-down sand marked by a faded, white windsock sticking out of an old oil drum. It is the airstrip.

The six of us sat in the plastic chairs while Paul gave us our safety briefing wearing a bright yellow jumpsuit with gecko printed all over it. He spoke casually, but reverently. He informed us that we would use only state-of-the-art equipment, have an automatic activation device for increased safety, and that every ‘Tandem Master’ we would jump with certified professionals with at least 1000 jumps under their belts.

Then he explains that all we have to do is arch our backs, keep our heads back, and lift our knees to try to kick our tandem master in the ass when we jump out of the plain. “If you don’t do these things you will still survive, but you will have a better time if you do it, so don’t worry too much about it. That is all there is too it. Now I need Meghan and Oliver first.”

While Meg puts on her yellow and red jumpsuit and diving harness a plane lands on the strip of sand in front of the tents. It is a Cessna 206, equipped with a 300-horse power engine that looks like it can hold about five people. The plane has been converted for skydiving by removing the seats and installing a clear plastic door that rolls up like a garage door to open the entire side of the plane. The engine sounds good, and does not sputter. Meg poses for a photo before walking the far side of the plane and getting in last.

I am nervous for Meg as the plane takes 25 minutes to reach altitude and release her into thin air. I am more nervous for her, than I am for myself, and I think about the conversation I would have with her parents if she has an accident. It is not something I want to do, and I don’t think they will find much comfort in me saying, “At least she died doing something fun.”

The heavy morning clouds have lifted, and blue desert sky looms above a light layer of bulbous white puffs. I hear the plane overhead, and then I hear Meghan scream from somewhere above the clouds. It is a good scream, not a terrified scream, and I am relieved to hear the flapping of the parachute, then silence. It opened, and after a minute I can see her canopy come through the clouds, and the two bodies rotating beneath it.

The two bodies approach the landing strip quickly, and at the last minute the tandem master pulls the parachute cords and their momentum stalls inches above the ground, and their feet land quietly on the ground. Their voices, however, are not quiet, and Meg whoops repeatedly with delight, and I can tell she loved the experience. Her tandem master, Craig congratulates her and hugs her, and she comes over to me, still beaming.

Now it is my turn to go up, and hopefully come down as gracefully.

In 2007 Henry Simon was an employee of the Ground Rush Adventure Company of Swakopmund, Namibia. He was an affable and high-energy man of 33 who moved to Namibia from South Africa. He was an experience skydiver, and held a valid license to be a tandem master in Namibia. On the afternoon of April 7th, 2007, he had already completed six successful tandem dives on the day, and had accumulated a total of 1580 successful dives in his career.

Henry’s seventh dive that day was with a 23-year old South African tourist named Chantelle Fourie. Chantelle was only meant to be in Namibia for a week before returning to South Africa, and her life. However, on that April afternoon Henry did not complete his 1581st successful dive, and Chantelle never returned to her life at home. The parachute never opened fully and Henry died on impact. Chantelle succumbed to her injuries in a clinic in Swakopmund four days later.

Following the tragic accident the Namibian Ministry of Works launched a thorough investigation. The Ministry examined video footage from Henry’s handy cam, along with his equipment to determine the cause of the tragedy. In May of 2008 they released their finding; human error.

The report says the Henry and Chantelle were forced into a bad position on exiting the plane that caused them to not be belly-to-earth. This in turn caused the pair to spin in the air. Because Henry was unable to control the spinning motion, the parachute was unable to deploy properly, and the, according to the report the jump was doomed after that. The report continues to recommend more side-spin training for all tandem masters, and increased experience for all tandem masters.

Hopefully, our instructors, and the company took notice of the recommendations, but I do not know about the report as I ascend in the same plane that Chantelle used, because I did not research any further than the statement on the Website claiming an impeccable safety record.

At 8,000 feet Craig slides his body to the back of the plane and tells me to sit on his knees while he connects my harness to him at four points. At 10,000 the sliding Plexiglas door rolls up and the cold wind fills the plane. We crawl towards the gaping hole in the plane against the pounding wind, and I do as I was instructed: hang my legs outside of the plane and cross my hands over my chest. I am not holding on to the plane, and am suspended in place only by the weight my tandem partner, Craig, behind me.

The wind carries my legs towards the back of the plane, and I try to resist and keep them under my body. My view is to the west, to the shantytown north of Swakopmund and the vast Atlantic Ocean stretching to the horizon beyond. I am terrified, but I know it is too late to turn back. I close my eyes waiting for the inevitable push out towards the ground below.

I fight to keep my eyes open as we tumble forward from the plane. The ground and sky flicker in rapid succession like frames on a movie that have been juxtaposed in rapid succession before we finally level out, and my head faces the ground. Moving at 130 miles an hour the ground does not seem to get closer, but the deafening noise tells me that we are moving falling quickly. I try to look around at the beautiful scenery, to store the images in my long-term memory, and not to look down.

Craig directs me to play to the camera but I am too amazed at the scenery to act. The weightlessness of my body falling to the ground, and the speed we are traveling makes any movement difficult. My mouth was open when we left, and now it is as dry as the desert below, but I am having a hard time closing against the force of the wind. I want the feeling to last forever, but after 35 seconds, and 5,000 feet in altitude, Craig pulls the shoot, without warning.

When the canopy fills it feels like we are being pulled up to the plane, instead of only slowing our fall. My harness distributes the force throughout my body, and it does not hurt, but I did not want the freefall to end. Freefall is the most exhilarating experience I have ever had and probably the most fun you can have on the earth. It feels like you are giving up your life for the thrill of the moment but cheat death at the last minute.

The silence of the descent is shocking after the ear-pounding noise of the freefall. We chat while I look around at the 360-degree views of spectaclur desert scenery and blue sky. Craig loosens the grip of his harness on mine, and it feels like I am being loosed to my doom. “You did that, didn’t you, I ask?”
“Yes, don’t worry.”

As we continue to fall slowly Craig gives me the yellow, guide ropes of the parachute, and directs me to pull the strings to steer us. As I pull my left arm down, and the loop with it, our bodies swing to the right. We become weightless as our momentum stalls, our heads listing towards the desert floor below. When and the parachute refills with air and takes our weight again we rotate violently to the right. Then we do it again, this time turning to the right, our bodies becoming almost parallel to the ground below us.

Below us I can see the makeshift airport and tent through a layer of puffy white clouds. As we approach the clouds the air becomes cold and moist. I can feel condensation on my cheeks as Craig takes control of the parachute in case of turbulence. Beneath the clouds Craig guides in towards the tent, and tells me to keep my feet up until otherwise instructed.

Inches above the ground he tells me to put my feet down and ski on the sand until we stop. I put my feet on the sand and slide, but stop more quickly than expected and pitch forward. I end up on my hands and knees, with Craig standing behind me. Not the most graceful landing ever recorded, but, safe nonetheless.

Meg greets me on the runway, and she is still beaming from her jump, and relieved I am alive. We both jumped out of a plane and survived, and both loved the experience. On the ground my blood is still coursing through my veins. I feel more alive than ever before, and I want to jump again. I want to jump all day long, every day. I feel like I can conquer the world and cheat death.

It is not long before I open the celebratory champagne, and Meg and I toast the start of our third year of dating. I know this is not the last of our exciting adventures together, and it may not be conventional, but it is a great way to spend an anniversary. And we survived, so we can definitely recommend Ground Rush Adventures of Swakopmund, Namibia, because there are always accidents, and things can always go wrong, but they did get us up and down safely, and the staff was great fun to be around.