Thursday, November 26, 2015

Need to Give Thanks Every Day

"The contents of this [blog] are personal and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps."

I’d like to think that I am always appreciative of my life. I have been exposed to so many more unfortunate people and events that to not be grateful for all I have would mean I’d have to be totally oblivious to my surrounding. If anything, I’ve been a bit anxious about all the good things I have in my life and how unfair it is that I have so much while others have so little. Beyond the trips and the relative ease in which I’ve lived, I also mean all the good people who are in my life, my health, the experiences that I have had, and the relative successes with all things endeavored(success is relative and maybe I’m being ignorantly bliss on this one but go with me).

Because of that ease in which I’ve gotten by in life, it seems like they will be just as easily taken away. From a detached perspective, it’s easy to be philosophical and come up with a cute little aphorism like: nothing in this life stays the same or to stop striving etc, but when you have a good thing you definitely want to hold on to it with all your worth. I look at all I have and it’s going to be an epic battle. And I know that this will eventually lead to sadness as all things do inevitably change and I will inexorably grow old and will have to deal with the impotent frustration of having the people I love, and physical and cognitive parts of myself slowly taken away.

And while this could be(read: is) really depressing knowing where I will eventually be, I view this as an opportunity to really and truly appreciate and enjoy where I am now. And that actually is all any of us can do. We can rail against the winds of change but I don’t think that’ll make much difference. We, however, can be thankful for all we have and have had and enjoy each and every moment that we have been graced with their presence. I don’t know when I will lose the things I love, but I hope when I do, I will have never taken them for granted or lost sight of how much they mean to me and what they have done to shape who I am today.

Being away from my family for today’s holiday, makes me realize how amazingly blessed I am. While it’s sad that I’m away, I really cannot complain. It’s the little things, like having this Internet connection (and electricity for that matter) to talk to my nieces and my family today. How, while physically apart, I am still with them in spirit.

So on today’s day of giving thanks, look around and be grateful for all that you have and show those that you love what they mean to you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Until next time,


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Paramaribo: Beautiful City/Ugly Race

I trekked over to Suriname's capital city, Paramaribo, this weekend under the pretext of running a marathon but more so I could get out of New Amsterdam and explore a city that I had heard was beautiful. As I'm saving my vacation days for trips later in the year this was a short trip.

If you look at a map of the Guianas you will probably see how close New Amsterdam is to the Suriname border and that the trip probably would only take about 3-4 hours driving. Well you would be wrong. I was told I needed to be at the bus park at 6am to catch the 9a ferry from Moleson Creek, Guyana. With my friend, Stephan, we have driven there before and it does take an hour or so. However, in a 15 passenger mini-bus, it takes as long as needed to fill that bus with passengers before we made it there. Unfortunately I was the first passenger so I was taken hither to thither as well went further and back scoping down side streets for potential customers. We did eventually get to the border where we went through immigration and customs and then boarded the ferry. 

Boarding the ferry

The ferry ride itself is about 30 minutes but the loading/off-loading and going through immigration/customs first in Guyana and then again in Guyana makes the whole process about 2 hours. Once through the Suriname side of things, you then exchange some of your Guyanese money(see more on this below) for the Suriname dollar and then get on another bus for the 3-4 hour ride to Paramaribo. I say three to four hours because it really depends on where you're staying in relation to the other passengers as the driver will drop you off where you are staying. So all told, from my walk to the bus stop to my arrival in my hotel, it was a 9 hour journey. But it really becomes a ten hour day because you lose an hour as you cross the border. 
It was a beautiful ride. And luckily I got a window that actually opened.

After dropping off my backpack at Guesthouse 24(a cute little pension within walking distance of everything), I went out and explored the city. 
Accommodations were sparse but I didn't spend much time there

Paramaribo really is beautiful. From it's tree-lined streets(with sidewalks and stop lights!) to the colonial houses on the Riverside Boulevard(Waterkant), this city seemed far more European than it's neighbor to the west. When I sat down to have a (few) liters of the local beer, Parbo, I felt could have easily been in a German beer garden not South America. 
What a relaxing way to spend an afternoon

Saint Peter and Paul Basilica 

This is the third country this year that I've been that "speaks" Dutch. And all three countries do it differently. South Africa's Afrikaans is considered a "daughter language" of Dutch as it evolved out of Dutch but is distinct. Meanwhile, the Dutch spoken is more typical of what you'd see in the Netherlands as it is compulsory to be learned in school. Locals with often the slip into Papiamento, which is a Portuguese-creolese. Which brings me to Suriname(formally known as Dutch Guyana). In Suriname, I would have said that it was Dutch-creolese but supposedly it is actually that locals will go back and forth from using Dutch and Sranan(the creolese language) within sentences using words from both. Impressively in all three countries they also speak English very well. At no point did I feel out of place or unsafe and could for the most part understand these native Dutch speakers better than many Guyanese with their heavy creolese mixing with English in an often-indecipherable mish-mash of gobbledygook and curses. Seriously google it.

Okay long enough side note on languages. It just bugs me, how bad I am at languages(even English for that matter), and wish I had taken a foreign language, other than Latin. Oh well. 

The next day(race day!), I again went for a nice walk around town and met some people from Ohio as well as a Suriname local who I had met the previous weekend in Santa Mission. It was a relaxing day, as it should be because I had a marathon at 5:30pm. 
Independence Square

Fort Zeelandia(not to be confused with Fort Zealandia in Guyana)

or Zoolandia...

Another picture of the fort

Before the race they weigh everyone to see whether they need fluids post-race and when I just on the scale, I noted that I am the lightest I've been since attempting to wrestle my first year in college. This is probably partially due to my increased mileage and partially to do with cutting out almost all meat from my diet. Either way I was feeling good about my abilities and was thinking a podium spot was in my future. And it was a super small field. I think there was only 50 runners or so. 

Danny pre-race(or was that mile 24?)
However, I was quickly disabused of any notions of placing when in that fifty, I saw about 15 guys that looked pretty legitimate and when the gun went off and I was already dropped in the first mile despite having done a 6:30, I knew I was in for a long day(or night).

I never run with a hand-held bottle, except for back when I used to do ultras(oh yeah, that's why my blog is called that...), but I decided to just to stay ahead of my hydration. I started with Gatorade and every aid station, I would get another water bottle and drink some and pour the rest on my head. This course was super-fast. It is an out and back x 2 and has about 4 turns total so long periods of flat and fast. Even when the wind was a headwind it gave a nice cooling effect.

I knew that it would be silly to try to run a super-fast marathon in the heat and humidity but the winning time last year was a 2:57 and I felt that I could do that if I didn't blow myself up. So I let those guys go and just settled into a comfortable pace. I went through mile ten averaging 6:45s which was a little slower than I had hoped but I was still feeling pretty good. At the half, my pace had already slipped to 6:52s but I was hoping that as the sun went down I could run a slight negative split and come out under 3. During this time I was slowly catching some of the runners who looked like they may have thought they were only running the half marathon. I actually started feeling better around mile 15 and picked up the pace a bit chasing my shadow from one street lamp to the next. 

This probably was the apex of my marathon with several good mile splits. Followed by a devastating nadir that took any hopes of a good time with it. Mile 18 or 19, probably from running too hard the few miles before, my wheels came off. At first, I would stop and walk just the water stations, drinking a full 500ml bottle and then picking up another and running off. By mile 21, I only jogged until I was out of sight of the aid station volunteers and then settled back in to a brisk walk. By this point, I was so thirsty, that I would drink 1 bottle and be half-way through the subsequent one before the next aid station. Unfortunately I think this did me in, So much water without any electrolytes(it took me until mile 23 to realize that the plastic baggies that were on the tables were filled with Gatorade), that I think I flushed my system and became totally depleted. Plus it's tough to run with 3 liters of water in your gut. 

But the real nadir of my race? It was my attitude. Around mile 20, someone told me I was in 4th place, and because the roads were so long and straight, all I had to do was to look back and see if anyone was coming. If I spotted someone, I'd run again until I couldn't see them anymore. Number 5 must have been worse off than me because of a few cowardly moves like that and I never saw him again. At mile 25, which if you've ever run a marathon before you know is almost impossible to walk through just because of the excitement, I was doing just that. The winner from last year, who I had met on the bus ride into town, yelled to me that I was in 4th and to kick it in. Instead I meandered in, and was able to find out that he had dropped out around mile 13. Definitely not my proudest moment.

I did eventually run the last 2-300 meters to the finish line over 30 minutes slower than I had hoped. I was weighed and had lost 8.8 pounds during the marathon. That explained my apathy and fatigue! 
Regardless, I was revived with some soup and bananas, stuck around just long enough to get my trophy(this and my 3rd place at Jackson Hole are probably my two worst performances resulting in a prize). And now that I think about it for the same reason. I became dehydrated in that race too, the difference being that that was because the race was a cup-free race and I was totally under-prepared for it(I actually at one point had my dad go to the store to get me a bottle of water because I was so dehydrated). And just like this weekend, my Jackson Hole trip was a blast despite a less than optimal race. The race, in both cases, may have been the excuse to go, but the fun and the good memories came from the journey and all the little things we did.
Danny in 4th
This does mark the first year since 2010 that I haven't run a sub-3 hour marathon, but when I look at all the cool places I've gotten to go because of running and I really don't care about my time.

Okay so, I couldn't find anywhere online with details about traveling from New Amsterdam to Paramaribo and prices etc, so I figured that I could jot them down here so that if you wanna go you'll have a better idea. Thing to remember: Exchanging Guyana currency to Suriname dollars in Guyana will get you 3 SRD to one US dollar. If you wait to get into Paramaribo, you can get 4.20 for that same dollar. So obviously, exchange only as much as you need(bus ride and for snacks), until you can get to a Cambio in the city.

Here's the deets:
  • Bus to Moleson Creek(Bus 63 only goes as far as Corriverton but they have another bus waiting there for you to get the additional 10 kilometers). Total price: $5
  • Ferry(round-trip): $20
  • Bus to Paramaribo from the ferry: 60 SRD(so if you can get SRD at 4:1 it's only $15 otherwise it's $20(so I paid $35 roundtrip)
  • 2 night stay at Guesthouse 24: 150 SRD(~$45)
  • Parbo Liter of beer on the river: 11SRD($3)
  • Cheese and Cucumber Panini and glass of watermelon juice: 6 SRD( $1.50)
  • Breakfast at the hotel: 15 SRD($4)
  • The bus back from Paramaribo will pick you up at your hotel(4am!) and bring you right to the ferry.
  • Now the 63 bus at Moleson Creek will bring you right you your house for $7.50
  • Fun weekend in Paramaribo. Nope. Not gonna do it. Bet you thought I was going to say priceless.

In fact, I can put a price on it. This trip was well under $150 total and could have been cheaper if I had planned it out better.haha. I'll leave you there.

Until next time, 


Monday, November 16, 2015

Guyana: It's more than just Kool-aid!

"The contents of this [blog] are personal and do not reflect any position of the US government or the Peace Corps."

I cannot count the number of people who, after realizing I was talking about GUYANA not Ghana, made a comment about not drinking the Kool-aid. It seems that one incident is seared in America's collective memory. It's too bad. Guyana has a lot to offer and should be considered a viable tourist destination(especially for those of you who, like me, don't speak Spanish or Portuguese). I realize that my previous blogs about burning trash, crazy traffic etc, may not encourage you to consider Guyana for your next trip, but really it should be! Just get out of the cities ASAP!

This weekend was really my first time to do that and I had a blast! After doing some Peace Corps-related business Thursday and Friday day, I headed to the Marriott for the pre-marathon pasta dinner. Now if you were to stay in Georgetown, I would say splurge and stay here. It's not even like you're in Georgetown(I know that sounds bad, but I mean that it's just really nice and right by the water etc).
View from the Marriott

Anyway, I will continue with foot in mouth. After gorging myself with pasta, I headed over to Santa Mission Village, an Ameri-Indian settlement about 2 hours away from Georgetown. Now that's 1 hour in a bus and 1 hour in a boat. And no not a shuttle like you may have used to get to Martha's Vineyard. This is pretty much a big version of a canoe with a motor in the back. And after quickly crossing the Demerara River we then spend the next 55 minutes navigating in small little creeks. Did I mention this was done in the dark with just a flashlight? It was so cool.
I then arrived into the village and quickly set up my hammock and bug net(thanks again Massa!).
My Friday Night sleeping arraignments
Again it was so cool to be able to sleep outside in a hammock and feel totally safe and comfortable(the mosquitoes there weren't even noticeable compared to those in New Amsterdam).

I awoke the next morning, packed up my hammock and readied myself for the marathon.
Danny and Barry(another PCRV) before the start of the race

 The race director had been prepping all participants on what to expect and how challenging this would be. It must have scared off many of the marathon registrants because upwards of 50% of them switched to the half. so I lined up with about 30 other runners and quickly we were off.

I didn't really know what to expect so I settled into a comfortable pace but was soon in the lead. By kilometer 4, I was by myself. Or so I thought, within another 1/2 kilometer I could hear someone barreling down at me so I started to pick up the pace thinking that I could drop this person and then settle back into a more comfortable pace. During this time, I must have taken a left instead of a right and I quickly slowed thinking I am need to turn around. But the runner behind me confirmed that we were, in fact, going the right way so we continued on.
I never actually saw these little guys but I guess they were what was making the noise off the trail while running

Now at this point, the race stopped being a race so much as a tempo run for the two of us. We matched each other's surges easily and ran comfortably(ish) for the rest of the race. We marveled at the beauty of the course and how it was entirely shrouded in canopy(making it shaded and so much cooler). There were definitely a few hairy spots along the course with creek crossings but that just made the adventure all the more fun.
One of the creek crossings

Does Danny win an award? 
During this whole time, I kept on looking at the aid stations and my time and still questioning whether we hadn't missed a turn. It seemed like we were way ahead of schedule. Sure enough, at around 2:35 we crossed the finish line within 4 seconds of each other. The third runner came in third and he was a local Ameri-Indian who told us that all three of us did in fact take a wrong turn and missed about 9 kilometers of the race. I was tempted to head back out and do the last 9 kilometers just to actually finish it but decided against it/. It turns out, had I done that(and even if I walked it), I would have probably won as the next runner didn't come in until 4:30 ish. But I didn't, I just basked in the sun, cheered on participants and swam in the black water river. Such a fun day!
The boat ride home in the light
Swim time:)

I headed back into Georgetown for the night and the next morning decided since I had skipped almost 10k of my marathon to walk it. Well sort of. Part of the reason also had to do with that I had nothing to do until 11am. So I walked about 6 miles across Georgetown to Ogle Airport where I checked in for my flight to Kaieteur Falls.
My plane;)
 Kaieteur is the highest single drop waterfall in the world. That means that it drops without hitting anything for 700+ feet. Angle Falls in Venezuela drops further over a series of falls but not all at once. Frankly, while that was pretty impressive, what was more impressive was it's sheer isolation. After the first 15 minutes of the flight, I am not sure I saw a single road and only a few isolated villages along rivers. It was pretty spectacular. And the waterfall is so cool in its lack of commercialization.
It's so high I cannot capture it all in one photo. 

 No guard rails or lines of people. Just me and the others who flew on the small plane were there. Pretty cool.

So there is definitely a lot of cool. Less aid. Unless you wanna visit and volunteer. Then come and join us for a while:) Either way if you stay out of the cities, it'll be worth your while.
The race t-shirt alone made it all worth while:)

Until next time,


Sunday, November 8, 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Or can we do a better job sensing how we are really feeling?

I just finished the book The Tale of the Dueling Neuroscientists by Sam Kean which Kenny bought for me and surreptitiously snuck in my luggage. I really enjoyed it. It did a great job of explaining the various parts of the brain and also what happens if something goes wrong with one part of the brain.

The most interesting one, in my opinion, was CapgrasSyndrome where patients believe that their loved ones have been replaced by “doubles” kind of like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. 

What happens is that the brain has two ways of recognizing faces, one conscious that recognizing this person is someone you know etc and the other subconscious that goes directly to the emotional centers of the brain. These people have a problem with the subconscious communication that results in a sense of strangeness to people that they should have an emotional response. To compound problems they also have problems with their right hemisphere communicating with the left and this results in the left brain coming up with plausible explanations for why who they’re seeing doesn’t elicit the response they know they should be experiencing. Thus the body double.

This even happens to the patients when they look at themselves in the mirror and many people have to cover up mirrors because they fear being attacked. Kind of reminds me of beta-fish.

Side-bar: If you don’t know this trick, put up a mirror in front of a beta-fish(i.e. a Japanese fighting fish) and it will see itself and think it’s an enemy and will try to attack it.

Okay back to Capgras. In addition to the obvious scariness of this for the patients, it’s also sad for their loved ones who are now treated with distrust or apprehension(Not always though: Kean uses an example of one Capgras patient whose sex life increased because his wife’s body was" electrifyingly new every few weeks"). 

Originally this was thought to be a psychological issues and often attributed to schizophrenia. However, it was  soon discovered that patients had corresponding brain lesions that appeared to be eliciting this odd delusion. And it was also occurring in many patients who were otherwise fully functional: their memory, motor function, speech, humor and even their emotions were all intact. Even if the patient talks on the phone to their loved one they will have that emotional connection but as soon as their vision kicks in and they have the conflict between conscious and subconscious perception: they start back with the body double thing. 

This is a rare and mysterious disease, but I’d argue that many of us spend a good portion of each and every day not recognizing ourselves. (I know that wasn’t the smoothest transition, but hey! Give me a break. ) In this I mean that how our body is responding to our environment, how we unconscious respond to sensory cues and stimuli, and the stress we allow our bodies to be exposed to all happens without our knowledge. As mentioned above, the brain is very good at coming up with stories for why we are the way we are.

So as you’re walking along and you smell something that reminds you of that time when you got in a fight with your friend, you may all of a sudden become angry. But you’re likely not to attribute it to that memory but come up with a story for why you are upset(maybe the car that just cut in front of you). The same thing can and does happen with our bodies. We may be standing hunched over the sink for 45 minutes and then all of a sudden our back starts hurting. Do we attribute it to that action? Oftentimes no. We attributed it to our “bad backs”. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard: oh I’ve got degenerative disk disease that’s why my back always hurts. Well… first of all, I doubt that it always hurts. It’s very easy to say that but most likely there are many parts of the day where there is no pain. Secondly, this is a convenient story that confirms their feelings without really getting at the root of the problem, which may be bad body mechanics, muscle imbalance, over-(or under) doing things etc.

In both of these instances, we experience a sensation and then our mind comes up with a story for it. If we can become cognizant of these feelings, and cut off those stories(or at least create a more empowering positive story), we may be able to avoid blowing up at our friends or catastrophizing our pain and creating persistent problems that don't need to be occurring.

Update: apparently this is called the Lazarus theory and researchers have concluded that “thoughts appear to act as fuel that stirs up the emotional fire and leads to a prolongation of the episode”. So evidence does support that we experience a physiological experience and then the stories we tell ourselves is what creates our emotional response....

It all goes back to mindfulness and getting to know our bodies and minds better. That way when we experience something it's not so frighteningly new to us. 

Until next time,