Wednesday, June 4, 2008

A Day In Belize: Why I Do What I Do

Some of my friends and family members probably wonder why I am the way I am, why I enjoy wandering the planet and putting myself in unusual places like small fishing villages in Belize.

This was my day today, and I think it may give some perspective on why I do what I do:

With no real plan for the day, I awake. I eat some cornflakes with a fresh local platano in my guesthouse room, and walk down to “Tiny’s Internet CafĂ©”

for a hot cup of Joe and to check my email. The fishermen are already out along the shore working on their boats. Less than two weeks until lobster season opens and that’s what these guys live for.

I sit at the crudely hand-made “tiki-style” bar as I wait for Antonia (“Tina”) to turn on the internet, while we chat about the verb “madrugar” which means “to wake up” but is literally translated as something like “to dawn”. I tell her I like that word. I’m still dawning. About 5 minutes later I’m checking my email and sipping a cup of fresh Nescafe Instant. I catch up with my girlfriend over chat, get advice from my brother about getting a new dog, and make a quick book recommendation to an old friend who I still keep in touch with now and again. Faustino (“Tino”) comes in shirtless with sandals as usual and asks if I’m going to my rounds with the fishermen again today. I say yes, feeling good about myself because yesterday morning he took one look at me and said, in Spanish, “Who died?”. Their son, “Tiny” (as in, Small "Tino") hasn’t madrugada yet. If you haven’t put it all together yet, Father, Mother, and Son are Tino, Toni, and Tiny. (Tiny’s in his 20’s, by the way.)

I hit the dirt road walking, with a plan I formulated over coffee. I’m going back to Dylan Sosa’s house where I had a good but Spanishly difficult interview with a fisherman and his two fishermen sons. There’s definitely not as much English spoken here as in other parts of Belize, and I’m feeling rusty. It’ll come back.

My plan to confirm this list of names of fishermen who fish in the South is temporarily derailed when I pass a “tortilleria” aka the local totilla-making shop called (translated) the "Speedy Tortilla Shop".

Now I undrestand what that woman I interviewed two days ago meant when she said, “It’s a good life here in this village. We have everything: a school, a store, and a tortilleria.” It’s a small wooden building with a vent on the roof and I can’t help but poke my head in.

I start chatting with the old man who explains to me how they make these corn tortillas. He’s feeding corn kernels through a grinding machine and a doughy substance is coming out below in a catch bucket.

He tells me they get their corn from the German Mennonite community in Little Belize, not too far from Sarteneja. He asks me if I’m from Mexico and compliments me on my Spanish, which makes me feel good because I had a rough day with the language yesterday. He tells me to come back in an hour because they are going to turn on the oven and start making the tortillas.

I walk out and remember my plan: Dylan’s house, check the names. I forgot to do that when I was talking to him yesterday. I arrive at the house, and nobody’s outside. I knock on the downstairs door and they tell me to go upstairs up the outside staircase (interior staircases don’t seem to exist here). I go upstairs and can’t see through the screen door but I hear a voice and out comes Dylan. He seems glad to see me, and I ask him if I can get the names of the other southern fishermen to compare those names to the names on my list. He sends me downstairs and we sit on the stairs chatting. My list is good; I’m only missing one name. When I ask where these guys live, he starts to tell me but then says “I’ll just show you.” He yells to a woman downstairs to see if we can borrow a bike.

Next thing I know I’m riding down a dirt road on an old rusty single speed fat tire beach cruiser with a seat that’s way too low and cruiser style handlebars, notebook in hand. He’s chatting as we go along, and then we stop at one house, and he yells to a guy about a bike, then he takes the third bike and points out a house down the road where one fisherman lives. Then we ride back to the house, and leaving the bike I was on, I resume on the 2nd bike he had just borrowed. This one fit’s a bit better but has one half-flat tire and a pedal’s missing which makes it hard to pedal in my sandals but most everybody else is cruising around barefoot, so I think I'll be fine.

We wind through the unfamiliar, typically car-less dirt streets lined with mostly unpainted cinder block houses, a thatched roof here and there, and flooded yards form the big storm the other night. Everything looks the same to me. He points down one street, says that’s so-and-so’s house, then we ride, I happen to take mental note of a church or a store that I had seen before. Teobaldo lives THERE. We continue, turn, turn again. Romeldo lives THERE. “OK“, he says, “now you know where all the guys live, you can use this bike today and just bring it back and leave it at the house when you are done.” I realize that we’re back near his house, and he bids me farewell.

I manage to negotiate my way back to the first house, and a young guy with 2 kids is outside and walks up to me (picture Gringo on local bike carrying notebook).

Now at this point I forget who lives here, because I just got the tour of 4 houses and 4 names and they are all mixed up in my head. I say that Dylan told me that a fisherman who works in the south lives here. He says, yah, its his dad, and I figure out it’s the house of Antonio. One down … but he’s out, and I should try to come back this afternoon. He should be back then. I pedal away, wind my way back by Dylan’s house and hope I can find the others. I remember the pink house, so I stop there and an old lady comes out and after a little wrangling I figure out it’s the house of Armando. But he’s not here, he’ll be back in the afternoon. Two down.

I pedal on, and think I remember the third house. I get it right, amazingly, and now its down to two names so I guess and ask for Teobaldo and my 50-50 chance paid off. And he’s home. But he’s working on the roof on this little shelter-like addition on the side of his house. He says to come back tomorrow early in the morning. Before 8. The earlier the better, because he has to work on repairing his cooler. The fishermen have these huge iceboxes that they keep on the sailboats to store their catch in. Three down. I pedal away, noticing that all the fishermen seem to be out and about making repairs to coolers, to the “cayuko” one-man canoes that they stack 5-high on their wooden sailboats, or on the boats themselves.

I stop at the corner house. I really can’t remember where this last one was. I ask if Romeldo lives here. No, they say, next street up. On the corner. I pedal on. This house has a gate and a fence and I can hear the TV on through the windowless cinderblock windows. I yell “hello!” and “good morning” in Spanish a few times, to no avail. I reach through the fence, undo the latch, and walk up to the front door. Is it OK to just walk up to someone’s gated house like this? I knock and yell hello. I hear something, then notice the door knob turn then turn again slowly like something out of a low-budget horror flick. It opens, and a young guy in his 20’s greets me. I ask for Romeldo and he says its his father, that he’s not home. But then he invites me in. I kick off my muddy sandals and walk in. His young daughter is swinging in the living room hammock watching cartoons. He seats me in a folding camp chair with some torn flower patterned cushions on top. We chat a bit, I tell him about my study, and he seems interested. He’s a student at the University in Belmopan and is studying nursing. He knows the professor of natural resource management that I met on my dive boat last weekend. He tells me that he went out fishing a few times with his father, but then decided to continue his schooling. We talk a bit about protected areas. Eventually I get up to leave and he over-politely bids me farewell. As I close the outer gate yells to me and asks if I eat mangos. “Of Course!” I say and he re-emerges with a bag of gigantic papaya sized “Apple Mangos” that are from his dad’s “milpa” or farm. It turns out to be his grandfather’s farm, but his dad still keeps it running. Another example of grandfather-farmer, father-fisherman, son-something else. It’s funny how you get information like this just from something like a gift of mangos. Four down. I pedal on, mangoes in hand.

I head back to Dylan’s house to return the bike and, smelling something warm, I suddenly remember: the tortilleria! There are a few people lined up to buy fresh-from-the-machine tortillas. I walk in, they greet me warmly, and I ask if I can go behind the counter to take some pictures. The old man feeds the dough into the machine, the dough gets pressed, cut into circles, and flopped onto the rotating flat metal feeder that goes into the oven. On the other side fresh warm corn tortillas emerge, piping hot and perfectly browned, and feed onto a wire conveyor belt to the awaiting hands of the 2nd of 2 employees who collects them, stacks them, and then weighs and packs them for the awaiting customers.

The old man asks me if I want to try one, and then pulls one off the conveyor belt, rolls it very professionally between his dark, flour-covered hands and hands it to me. One word: DELICIOUS.

I get on the bike smiling, thinking about how lucky I am to be here, doing this intentionally random type of work. Besides my somewhat formal interviews, I am also here to do something called “observational ethnography” and it entails just living somewhere a while and getting a sense of the place and how it works. I’m going to like this, I think to myself, as I return the bike to Dylan’s house. Walking back past the tortilleria, I can’t resist and stop in again, this time with a $2 Belizean bill in my hand ($1 US) and ask for a pound of tortillas not knowing how much it will be. It’s a huge stack, so I tell her to halve it. She does, I get BZ$1.25 back in change, and walk back home with a bag full of hot, fresh tortillas, munching on one as I go.

I head back to Antonia’s where my homemade chicken and vegetable soup lunch is ready and waiting for me, which I eat with my stack of fresh tortillas and my usual “Fanta Orange” out of a large 500mL glass bottle.

I may need a siesta after a lunch this size, but eventually I’ll head back down the dirt road to find and interview these elusive fishermen…

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Clean Water Gadget

Have you ever been traveling in a foreign country and been afraid to drink the water? I have. Especially when the guidebook says, "Tap water in [country] is not safe to drink." But then the locals say they all drink the tap water, and you're not really sure what is safe and who to trust. When I was in South Africa recently, I kept hearing things like, "Well, you CAN drink the water here ... but I don't."

That's what's happening to me now, as I'm working and traveling through Belize. Before I left, I bought this little gadget that I really want to write about, because it's so useful, and (hopefully!) effective, especially when you are traveling for long periods of time and don't want to be constantly buying expensive bottled water. It's called the Steripen. It's a small, battery powered (CR123) handheld device that emits an Ultraviolet light that is effective against bacteria, viruses, and protozoa (like that pesky Giardia).

So what I've been doing, just to be safe, is filling my Nalgene bottles (yes, I have the new BPA-free ones!) with tap water, zapping them with the Steripen (1L takes less than 2 minutes) and I can drink all the water I want, instantly, and worry-free! The Nalgene bottles are nice to use with this Steripen because you need a nice wide-mouth bottle.

The Steripen has a light on it that blinks green if your purification has worked properly, red if it hasn't. I've used it about 10 times so far and only had one red light incident. (I think I may have pulled it partly out of the water while using it. Got the green light on the 2nd try.) Although I tend to prefer fail-safe products that can't break (or run out of batteries), this thing is really useful. You can always carry water purification tablets with you as a fail-safe back-up if you are backpacking or camping. The nice thing about the Steripen is that you don't have to wait 4 hours to drink your water.

Here's a video of it in action in Belize:

How To Find A Fisherman

I'm working on a 2-month long research project in Belize right now, doing what is called an "ethnography" of the Sarteneja fishing community in Northern Belize. I'm looking at the impacts, if any, that the establishment of two marine managed areas (Gladden Spit Marine Reserve and Laughing Bird Caye National Park) have had on this particular community. To do this, I must find and interview the fishermen from this community to see what I can piece together about how their community has changed over the last 10-20 years and what factors have caused those changes.

So the first thing people ask me is, "How do you know who the fishermen are?" I mean, they are not always standing next to their boat with a fish in their hand.

So I just look for the guys wearing these shirts:

Translation: "I am a fisherman."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A New Moretti

On May 14th, 2008, shortly before midnight, a new Moretti joined the family.

My brother Mark and his wife Carolina.

Welcome, Mr. Lucas John Moretti!

As his proud Godfather (Gulp!), I thought I'd share some pictures:
(Click them to enlarge to original size)

A Baby Lucas foot at 0 days old.

An emotional mom and baby.

It's pretty rough having been in a nice dark, warm environment for so long and then getting thrown into the lights and all these people making a fuss over you

Here's the little guy blinking his eyes open for the first time, with the whole family looking on: He's thinking, "Oh no! Not THIS family!!"

Here's Lucas getting weighed in (7lbs 8 oz):

Lucas getting handed over to mom for the first time. Everyone's laughing at his pouty lips:

Grandma (and Aunt Julie) with Lucas.

A couple of crazy Uncles.


Lucas, Abuela, and Grandma.

Grandpa, Dad, and Abuelo.

A family tradition that we've been doing (and arguing over!) for years is the coveted "You Are Special Today" plate. Let's just say that you've got to do something really significant to earn the right to eat off this plate at Sunday night dinner. (I had to ride my bike 600 miles across Africa to get it!) Lucas now holds the record for the youngest family member to earn the plate (4 days old). We figured "being born" was enough to qualify him for the distinction. He'll have to try a little harder the next time he gets it, though.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Bottling Time at Mark Moretti Winery

Today I went up to San Francisco to help my brother with the bottling of the Mark Moretti Winery 2005 Pinot Noir.

We each had a sample glass of it and let me say this is going to be one tasty Pinot, especially after a few months in the bottle. It has a really nice full palate and smooth oakey flavor. The dense color adds to the small-batch handcrafted qualities of this wine, in my personal opinion. (Look at me and all my fancy newly acquired wine lingo!)

This was my second visit to the Winery, since I've been so far away from home for so long.

Here is the wine going into the clean bottles after the inert Argon gas has been pumped into the bottles to remove any oxygen. After the wine goes in, carbon dioxide is "shot" onto the surface of the wine before it is corked. You can see Mark in the background casing up the finished product. (I guess wasn't being very productive when I shot these photos and videos...)

This is the label machine:

And this is a shot of the bottles getting labeled, coming off the assembly line, and getting double checked before getting boxed up and stored away until they get shipped off to a happy customer:

I packed up this whole case myself:

Saturday, April 26, 2008

My Birthday Dinner

I finally had the chance to try a sushi restaurant that I had heard a lot of good things about, the Sakae Sushi & Grill in Burlingame, CA, where we went to celebrate my 35th birthday.

I'll start by saying that the best sushi I've ever eaten, by far, was at the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, Japan (and it was for breakfast!). Sakae is now my 2nd favorite place to eat sushi! This is a great little restaurant, with a very authentic Japanese atmosphere, and the food is fantastic. If you want the good stuff, and you'll pay for it, order off the Sushi Specials menu. Everything on there is flown in direct from the Tsukiji Market 3 times a week. I finally tried something I've never had before but have always been curious about: Sea Urchin. It was, well, interesting. I don't think I'll be ordering it again, but I'll try anything once. And of course I ate my fried shrimp head just like my Japanese friend Hozumi in Saipan taught me! The fish was outstanding, as was the rest of the very large meal we managed to consume. They also have a great selection of premium Japanese Sake. Thanks everyone for a great birthday dinner!

I feel like I must make a recommendation here against ordering the Bluefin tuna or the "Toro" or fatty tuna, which is the belly-fat section from (most likely) a Bluefin tuna. I admit that I have tried a piece of each once before in order to try and understand why it is such a prized fish. It is delicious, but your wallet, the environment, and hopefully your conscience will take a hit when you order these items. Bluefin are a very large, impressive species of tuna whose populations are suffering due to the fact that they are slow to mature, because there is such a high demand for them for the sushi market, and because they are difficult stocks to manage due to their migratory nature. If you want to see a live one, go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Outer Bay Exhibit and you will be mesmerized by these amazing animals.

One ironic fact about the Bluefin at this and other US restaurants is that there is a good chance that it was caught off the East coast of the USA, frozen, flown to Japan, sold at the fish market, then shipped back to CA and onto your plate! A fisherman friend of mine in North Carolina landed a Bluefin once back in 2002. When he got to the dock, there was a Japanese fish market "middleman" there, in the small North Carolina coastal town of Beaufort, waiting to take the last few Bluefin of the season (there is a quota, and when it is reached the U.S. fishery is closed down) to the Japanese market. The three of them are all very experienced fishermen, and there is a very specific technique and procedure that must be followed when landing and bleeding a Bluefin in order to preserve the quality of the meat. They thought they had done everything "by the book" but even so the buyer took a sample of the meat, analyzed it closely, and told them just by looking at the tissue what they had done wrong. They still sold the one large fish for THOUSANDS of dollars.

The fact of the matter is that we can use the market system, good old supply and demand, to help influence the fish that restaurants buy for their customers. If people stop ordering it, they will stop purchasing it, and hopefully the populations will recover to a point where they can be sustainably harvested in the future.

And don't forget that if you are pregnant or nursing (like my sister-in-law, ahem!) you should be limiting your consumption of tuna and other upper-tier predators like king mackerel, shark, and swordfish because of the higher levels of mercury that they contain in their tissues. I was worried about this when I was living in Micronesia because I ate local line-caught tuna very frequently for over 2 years. During my last physical, I had my doctor run a blood test on my mercury levels and it was still well within the normal values. Funny how we have "normal" levels of things like mercury in our bodies ...

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The 2008 Absa Cape Epic

It's hard to know where to begin this entry. On April 5th, 2008, my Team Pioneer Africa teammate Roualeyn de Haas and I managed to struggle across the finish line of what is one of the toughest, longest, and most-elevation-gained mountain bike races in the world. If you zoom in you can see the tears in our eyes:

1,200 riders started the race on March 28th, and something like 967 riders finished all 8 stages and the pre-race Prologue on April 5th. The race is 966 Km (600.2 miles) long and has 18,529m (60,790.68 feet) of vertical gain. That's the equivalent of riding your bike up Mt. Everest from sea level ... TWICE.

Rou and I began preparing for this event over a year ago. I should start by saying that Rou and I are not competitive mountain bike racers. We are, at best, experienced weekend warriors who are passionate about riding. We followed a strict training regimen that we downloaded from the race website that had us begin our training in November of 2007. We did a lot of riding before that in order to "train for the training"; our first week had us doing a 5 hour ride with 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and we had to be ready for it. We read all the manuals and blogs and talked to folks who had ridden this race before. Despite all our training and preparation, we were consistently at the tail-end of this group of over 1,000 extremely talented riders. It was a humbling experience to say the least.

The hardest thing about the race was not knowing what to expect. Every day we were riding on new terrain. We were riding more miles and more hours and climbing higher than we had ever done before, and we were doing it day after day. We had no idea what was around the next bend, but experience taught us that more likely than not, it was another hill. I learned very quickly that there is no such thing as "the last hill" or "the last climb" in the Cape Epic. After days on end of riding, even the short staircase to door of the shower trailer feels like scaling a sheer cliff. Walking to your tent feels like its uphill. The whole world seemed to be leaning up towards wherever you wanted to go!

The best thing about the race was the finish line. Seriously, even the stage finish lines were amazing mini-victories. In the back of the pack, where we were, it was not uncommon to see tears from those riders barely making the cutoff times ... but making it! The feeling of crossing that line each day was one of the things that kept us going. For the first few days, we kept saying, "I can't believe we just finished Stage 1 (...Stage 2... Stage 3...). Even better than crossing the finish line was what got us there - all of the riders ahead of us (if they can do it...) and the riders around us (We can do it guys!). There was a great deal of camaraderie amongst the riders at the back of the pack. Everybody helped everybody along. We rode in groups, drafted off one another, and pushed one another, helped each other repair flats. And when it came to our teammates, we LITERALLY pushed one another up hills!

The race is done in teams of two. All around you are pairs of riders in matching kit, sometimes even matching bikes. Although this makes the race extremely challenging in some ways (when you have a bad day, your partner does too!), you quickly realize that despite the drawbacks of having to ride at the same pace and having to put up with that guy who is constantly RIGHT next to you, it is actually a blessing in disguise. When you are in the 5th hour, 7th hour, up to the 10th hour of riding(in our case), you really appreciate having that teammate to help you along. The thought of doing this race solo is just unbearable. A lot of guys write about the importance of having the right teammate, who is at your same condition level, and you realize just how right they are. Having the right teammate can make (or break) the race for you.

This is my version of a typical day during the race. All of these things happened at one point or another during the race:

The sound of 18-wheeler semi-trucks blaring their horns at 5:00a.m. startles you awake when awake is the last thing you want to be. You thank God for the sleeping pills you brought and wonder why you didn't take them sooner. You crawl out of your sleeping bag and throw on some clothes, the only ones you have and the same ones you've been wearing for the last 3 mornings and evenings. You check your bike computer and for some reason it didn't charge properly during the night. It's cold and pitch black outside. The lights on the ball-field slowly begin to turn on. You stumble to the porta potty to have a pee. About half way there, you decide to just pee on the grass because it's too far and your legs hurt. You walk to the dining hall tent to get some breakfast. You get there and realize that in your stupor you forgot your pass, so you have to walk 200 meters back to your tent to get your pass. You get lost and can't find your tent which is hidden among 1,000 other identical tents. At the dining tent you are bumping shoulders with about 1,000 other hungry riders who are in line for food. You get to the eggs and they are gone. You wait as a fresh tray arrives. You stack your plate high with eggs, topped with cheese, with a side of bread. You make two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to eat on the trail. You sit quietly at your table with a bunch of other weary riders. You ask yourself why you are doing this. You want it to stop and there are still 5 more days.

You stagger back to your tent, wondering how these guys can put their bike clothes on so early in the morning. It's like they slept in them. Half way back to your tent nature calls and you'd better answer because it's your only chance that day. You answer in a dark, cramped, smelly port-a-potty. Back at your tent, you prep your bag for the days ride. If you were smart, you filled and mixed your camelbak the night before. Of course you were too tired last night, so you are doing it now. You walk 150m to the water truck and fill your spare bottle and your camelbak. Back at your tent you slowly pour your drink mix into the small hole on your camelbak spilling sugary powder all over your bag. You don't care. You unwrap your cliff bars, make sure all your tools are back in your pack, and get today's stage map out to have handy during the ride to see how many more hills there are ahead of you. There are always a lot more. You pull on your bike clothes, which are still cold and wet from being washed yesterday because you got finished with the stage so late that the sun was setting by the time you put your clothes out to dry. You don't really care. You get dressed out in the open, right in front of everyone. Guys, girls, it doesn't matter. You don't care because getting dressed inside your tent would be too hard. You put on your shirt before your bib shorts because you forgot what order to get dressed in. Then you have to take your shirt off and start over. You put on sunscreen, which seems ridiculous at 6:30a.m., but you are going to be riding a bike in the shadeless African sun for 10 hours, so you don't have a choice. (You will change sunscreen brands after the race because the smell of your race sunscreen will cause flashbacks that trigger bouts of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.) You struggle to find something to wipe your sunglasses clean with. You walk 150m to the bike corral, where your bike is stored, and you walk, not ride, back to your tent. You check your bike to make sure its running. It is. You are thankful for your Ibis Mojo and your great LBS back home. It's been running flawlessly (not even a flat!) the entire race and you hope it stays that way. (It does.) You lube the chain. You check your Maxxis Crossmark tires, hoping you put enough Stan's in them to last the race. Your teammate's tire is flat. You pump it up, hoping it holds, thanking god for tubeless tires and sealant. He had to use Slime because the entire country of South Africa was literally out of Stan's because of this race. You climb back into your tent and pack up your sleeping bag, your clothes, your junk. Then you put your big race bag on the seat of your bike (because you lack the strength to carry it) and wheel it 100m over to the big trailer and the overly-enthusiastic bag boys who provide you a little much-needed entertainment each morning with their calisthenics routine choreographed to the song, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down". They take your bag, and now it's just you, your teammate, your bikes, and 100 miles and 8,000 feet of climbing until you get to crawl back into your tent.

You head to the start line. Actually, you head to about a 1/2 mile behind the start line because that's where you and the other sloths in the "Open" category get to start. You once-over your bike and realize something is loose. It's your brake where it bolts to the frame. You pull out your tool and frantically tighten it before the gun goes off. The gun goes, then you wait about 4 minutes before anyone starts moving, then you walk like cattle for another 2 minutes before the group gets moving fast enough to warrant pedaling. And off you go. Your butt is killing you, your legs are stiff and sore. Your back hurts. Your hands can't grip. But you want this and you want it badly so you just go. You just keep pedaling. The morning is nice, there is a beautiful sunrise starting to come up and its casting long shadows of you on your bike through the open fields. The beauty distracts you for about an hour. Then you realize you are climbing up a really steep hill, again. The pack spreads out. You fall back but keep going, wondering how all these guys from the NETHERLANDS of all places are beating you up the hills. You decide it's because they are born on bikes. "Music Man" slowly approaches you from behind. This guy brought an iPod and some portable speakers and put them in his pack and would play music when the going got tough. Some raunchy rap song comes on and he skips to the next track. 5 guys all yell out in protest, so he turns it back and the beat pushes you up yet another hill. On the hour you pull out your PB&J sandwich and wolf it down, because your partner reminds you to eat. Otherwise you would have forgotten. It's 9am and you've been riding for 2 hours. At 10 am you hit your first water-stop. It's a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. You grab a cup of Coke, refill your camelbak with water, and throw two bananas in your pockets, and go. No resting for you, because you are at the back of the pack and you are racing against a cutoff time. You ask the water saviors how many Km to the next station. It's 43. Oh, and there's a lot of sand up ahead, they warn. Off you go, down the dirt roads, which turn to sand. The sand kills your legs. You simply can't ride through it. Riders are trying anything possible to ride around the deep sand in the double-tracks of the jeep trail. The sand goes on for miles and miles and never ends. You hike through most of it. When you finally get some speed on a downhill you hit a hidden sandy patch and it throws you off your bike. It's hot now. Really hot. You use your spare water bottle to pour water on your head to keep from overheating. Your lips are chapped raw and burn every time you eat or drink anything. You want to take your shoes off because they are filled with sand but you can't because your teammate ran over the release buckle yesterday in line for the bike wash and broke it off. It now takes 3 people working in unison and 5 minutes to take off your left shoe. You don't have that kind of time. You eventually make it to the 2nd water station, where (because you signed up for the Nutrition Service) they have an ice-cold camelbak bladder of yours, pre-mixed with your drink mix, waiting for you. You swap out your bladder with the cold, full one, chug a Coke, quickly re-apply sunscreen from the little film case you stored it in, and off you go. Only 28Km to the next station! The bad news is that there's a mandatory cut-off time at Station 3 so you'd better hurry. And a really big hill. That you have to hike up. You trudge on. Immediately you get off your bike and start hiking. It's steep and loose and un-ridable in your condition. You take your video camera, turn it on yourself, and film a minute of your misery. (You will laugh at this later and wish you made more movies during the race.) You get to the top and you see the sign with the three arrows pointing down, which means, "You're probably going to crash going down this descent." It's a nasty downhill which lasts forever and by the time you get to the bottom your hands are cramped and your legs are shaking from all the time out of the saddle. You wonder if going up is easier. You're lucky, and don't crash. You stop to pee. Your teammate joins you. Another team of 2 joins you. It's a pee-fest. The next guy riding by takes a picture of everybody peeing in pairs of two. Anything is funny at this point. You make it to Water Stop 3 with an hour to spare before the cutoff. You think you can rest a bit but they tell you there's a hard 34Km to the finish and you better hurry because it's going to take you all the time you have left to get there before the cutoff. You hurry, not like you haven't been hurrying for the past 7 hours, and chug a Coke and take an energy Gel and off you go. 5 minutes later your stomach is revolting against the sugary Gel and you have horrible and painful stomach cramps. You feel more sorry for the guy behind you. Luckily it "passes" and you feel like you are back to your normal, suffering miserable self again. Your teammate is complaining again about his saddle sores. He decides to have them checked. You pass the Medical Truck and you finally get a break from the pedaling. The nurse puts on a glove, introduces herself (seriously), and tells him to drop his shorts and bend over. "It helps if you grab your ankles", she says. You take a picture. He doesn't care. You've stopped caring about anything by this point. All you care about is getting to that finish line. All lubed up and approved to continue, your partner joins you as you pull through the last stretch, hours 8-10 of the day. You realize you are in a real time crunch, so you pick up the pace. Then you realize you can't pick it up much, but you try regardless. You pass two teams, then, behind you, you hear a crash and cussing and yelling. One rider, while passing another team, inadvertently swerved into another rider and made her fall. Looking back you can see them checking on her, she seems OK. (You find out later that the woman who crashed dropped out of the race shortly thereafter.) Ten minutes later the same team passes you. The same rider swerves again, in his exhaustion, and nearly takes out another rider. You let them pass with plenty of room for error. Everyone is so exhausted at this point that you can't blame them for swerving. You pass through a small town and there are children on the side of the road running, yelling for chocolates. You are sprinting frantically at this point because you have only an hour until cutoff and too many Km to go. The children run along side of you, barefoot, keeping up with you. You realize only then how slow your "sprint" really is, but it's all you've got. You ride on, mile after mile. You hit a paved road, which offers you some relief, mainly because you can ride faster now. A young man from the village, wearing jeans and sandals, suddenly passes you and your teammate on a rusty old fixed-speed bike, head bobbing to the beat coming through his headphones. You look at your teammate and you both burst out laughing at the irony of the situation. The laughter gives you a little boost to keep going. You look down at your legs and they shaking, caked with dust. A thick layer of dust. You feel lightheaded. Your butt is killing so you stand up to take the pressure off. As soon as you come off the saddle there is a red-hot searing pain from your rear that feels like someone has sliced deep into your skin with razors. You groan audibly, loudly, in pain until it passes. It's the blood rushing to your saddle sores as you take off the pressure. Then your legs begin to protest and you sit back down, shifting around trying desperately to find a spot that doesn't hurt quite as badly as the others. When you find it, you hit a bump in the trail that knocks you off that sweet spot. You give up and just deal with the constant pain. You join up with another group of riders and group together to fend off the howling head-wind. It's still hot, and the dust is relentless. The stronger riders from each team take turns "pulling" the rest of the group through the wind. On the last few hills, you push your teammate up the hills to keep the momentum going, and he takes over on the downhills, letting you rest as you draft behind him. You notice that your shadows are getting long again. You see the 5Km to finish sign, but you keep sprinting because you have less than 10 minutes until cutoff. You are in a crazed state of panic now. You realize that if anything went wrong you miss the cutoff. You continue sprinting, up the last hill. No, there is another. You sprint, push, pull, you don't know how you are doing it or where it is coming from but you finish with a burst of speed from deep within. 1Km to finish. Almost there! You can see the finish line and know you will make it but keep sprinting anyways. You won't stop unitl you cross the line. Nothing will stop you now. You cross, grab your partner's hand and your eyes well up with tears. You just finished Stage 4, with 5 minutes to spare before the dreaded cutoff. Only 4 more days like this to go.

There aren't many people around the finish line at this point. You grab a couple cups of Coke to pull your sugar levels up. The other back-enders are congratulating you and you them for making one more stage. You wait to see who else makes it across the finish line before the cutoff. You feel dizzy and sit on the pavement for a minute. You feel utterly, completely, totally wrecked. Wasted. You can barely walk, but somehow you will convince yourself to get on your bike and ride another 90 miles tomorrow.

You walk your bike over to the bike wash, and there is a huge line of bikes. You stagger around and find and tip a kid to take your bike over and get it washed and put away. You walk to the baggage truck and you tip another kid to carry your bag over to a tent, if they can find an open one. Most are taken now. Your bag is one of the last ones there. At your tent, you struggle for 5 minutes, with help, to get your shoes off. The guy across from your tent is getting a full-body massage on a proper massage table from his support team. You realize you have no support team and joke with them about getting you a massage even though you really aren't joking. Shoes off, you grab your soap and wet, stinky towel and your one change of clothes and make the long trek across the field to the shower trucks. There is a line, which you wait in. You shower, and it takes ages for you to wash the dirt off every last bit of your body. You slowly make your way down the stairs, knees on fire, feeling a little better but quickly realize that your blood sugar is dropping dangerously low and that you need some food in you. You grab some M&Ms back at your tent and lay down for a minute enjoying the downtime. It doesn't last long because you rememeber that your brake lever was getting stuck so you have to get your bike over to the mechanic, then you have to eat dinner, then you have to prep your drink mix for the Nutrition Service before they shut down for the night, and then you have to get your Garmin Edge GPS bike computer charged up and hopefully it will work this time. (You find out after the race that the unit can only hold about 15-20 hours, or 2 days, of riding and is automatically deleting all your previous days' rides.) Oh, and you have to wash and dry your clothes for tomorrow. Luckily there is a laundry service at this Stage so you can drop it off and pick up clean DRY clothes in the morning. You crawl into your tent, pop a sleeping pill, and get ready for that 5am wake-up call. And last but certainly not least, you think about quietly suffocating your teammate in his sleep for talking you into this ordeal...

I'll be posting up some of the pics and videos I took from my on-board camera during the race when I get back home in July. For now these were the only pics I had.