Category Archives: Journal

2014 Hawaii Ironman World Championships, Kona: Race Report

On Saturday October 11, I found myself bobbing in the ocean in Hawaii’s early morning light. Surrounded by the pink swim caps of nearly 1,000 other women, the Hawaiian drums began to pound as we waited for the cannon to start the race. As the sound filled the air, I turned around and looked at the thousands of people lining the shore.


Then I looked around for Lisa.

I had met Lisa 20 minutes before descending the slippery stairs to the water. We were both sitting near the swim start – she told me she lived in Seattle and was terrified of the swim. She got teary-eyed talking about it, so I tried to think of some encouraging words. I am not a particularly strong swimmer myself, and was none too thrilled about swimming 2.4 miles in rough ocean waters, but I am pretty good at spouting BS on the spot, so I tried to leverage this to my best ability.

Clear water, I exclaimed. Just think of the fish! And all the coral!  And fun!

I asked her when she started triathlon, and that’s when she told me: Her husband had been killed in Afghanistan. Barely 30 at the time of his death, Lisa was left with two small children. Her husband John never met the youngest.  She said she had taken up triathlon as therapy to deal with the grief and a way to honor his memory. This was her third ironman. Before we got in the water, we hugged. At the time, the conversation rocked me, but I didn’t know how important it would be in the hours to come.

The Swim: 1:20

When the cannon went off, a mass of bodies set off towards the boat about a mile in the distance. We were to swim out to a boat, take a right, and then swim back into the pier where our bikes were waiting. Unlike my last ironman in Whistler in July, this swim was relatively non-violent. I quickly found a group I could draft off of, and settled in at a very relaxed pace. As I had promised Lisa, the water was indeed clear and from time to time we could see fish swimming below us. I waved to the underwater safety divers, who peered up at us like aliens in their dive gear.

My last several weeks of swim training had been lackluster at best – the Salida pool had been closed for renovations so I was driving an hour each way to Gunnison twice a week to get in workouts. My swimming has improved a lot this year, but I don’t have much experience in the ocean (without a beer in my hand, at least), and the swells and current were a bit confusing. Despite that, perhaps my words to Lisa were a prophecy, because I quite enjoyed the swim. After what seemed like a long, long time we funneled towards the pier for the finish.

The swim exit was a mess – the crowded stairs onto the pier were full of dizzy, disoriented bodies stumbling onto other athletes and bedraggled volunteers who were doing everything possible to hoist people out of the water. I was a bit disappointed when I saw the clock. At Whistler, I swam ten minutes faster, and while I knew this swim was much more challenging, still – a girl can dare to dream, can’t she? On the other hand, I knew I hadn’t tired myself out at all for the rest of the day. I had told myself to treat the swim like a warmup to the start line, and that’s what I had done.


Transition 1

I ran into a full transition tent yelling, “Did I win?” No one laughed. Oh well.

The Bike – 6:02

I was excited to set out on the bike, my favorite part of the ironman. Over the last eight months, the combination of good guidance by my coach Kelly Williamson and living and riding in Colorado has really made me a stronger bike rider. I had watched myself progressively improve in nearly every race I had done this year – New Orleans half ironman, Wildflower half ironman, and Ironman Canada. Just a month earlier, my bike at the Mt. Tremblant Half Ironman World Championships had brought a real breakthrough in confidence.


Today, I deduced pretty early in the ride, was not going to follow that upward performance trajectory. My legs didn’t feel terrible, but they weren’t giving me what I was hoping for. The numbers on my power meter were quite low, so after about ten miles I stopped looking, put my head down and just rode.

The bike conditions in Kona are notoriously tough. With temperatures near 90 degrees, the course travels the rolling hills of the Queen K highway through black lava fields to a turnaround point on the island’s northern peninsula in a small town called Hawi. As the day wears on, the lava fields and the pavement radiate heat. The winds are the wild card, and can be legendary. This year, they picked up early on in the race, and didn’t let up.


Despite my lackluster riding, I was excited to greet the winds and heat. As the headwinds pummeled us starting about mile 20, I said to a guy riding next to me, “Yes! Let’s make this hard!” Returning from Hawi, the crosswinds made things scary, as several times side wind gusts picked up my bike and moved it across the road. Someone had told me to watch the bike in front of me. When it moved, then I should know to get small and hang on for dear life. So that’s what I did.


The last 30 miles of the bike I felt strong and steady. I was drinking and taking in calories like a champ. I had a plan and I was sticking to it, much like a mature adult might do (progress!). My legs were not overworked and I knew I had made up some ground on the bike, despite not feeling very spunky. In most every other ironman I have completed, the thought of running a marathon while I am still on the bike strikes fear into my heart.


But today, somehow, I didn’t really mind the idea.

Transition 2:

I got off my bike, and my legs immediately buckled. Whoops. I righted myself, and waved to my friend Karen among the other bike volunteers as my shaky pins steadied. Then I immediately ran the wrong way towards the changing tent. Typical. A volunteer quickly got me pointed in the right direction.

The Run – 4:41             

Heading out into the run felt like heading into a foreign land. I didn’t know what to expect. The first ten miles is an out and back on Kona’s Ali’i Drive. It is relatively flat and lined with screaming spectators peddling a wide variety of offerings – love, nudity, beer. Mercifully, that afternoon we even had cloud cover. Needless to say, it was a good ten miles.


In the first mile I saw Jimmy. I raised the roof and stopped to give him a hug. A couple miles later, I saw my girl-crew: Sandy, Sheree, Angela, Jill.


All the way down to the turnaround and back I felt fantastic. I was consciously slowing things down to my goal pace of about 8:30-8:45/mile. I was doing all the housekeeping things I knew were important: stuffing cold sponges in my bra, pouring water over my head, taking in calories, putting ice down my pants (housekeeping is important). I made the right turn onto Palani Drive to run up the one steep hill. Then it was out onto the Queen K Highway for several hot, lonely miles.

I was ready. I had been warned.

The first two highway miles were just fine. I watched pros – including my coach Kelly Williamson, who was running hard, crazy focused – and the fast age groupers coming back the other way to finish their day. I laughed when I heard one of them say to his running partner, “This sucks balls,” and I figured yep, I’ll probably be saying that in about 11 miles too, but good thing I’m not saying it now.


Then suddenly I was. Out of seeming nowhere, a vice grip grabbed my intestines and squeezed. I slowed down. It squeezed again. I walked. Then again.

I assessed my options. I was between aid stations, few of which had porta potties. The highway was filled with black lava rocks and scrub brush. That would have to do, I decided. I scrambled up the rocks, hid myself from sight as much as possible, and left a gift for the island gods.

I’ll spare you any more gory details, but suffice it to say this wasn’t the last offering of the day. I had to duck off about three more times during that next mile. I was walking now, but dizzy and nauseous. The dizziness worried me. We all know the accounts of super-tough athletes stumbling down the road, their legs giving out, their speech incoherent, just grasping for the promise of the finish line at all costs. The day before, we had watched Julie Moss’ finish line video on YouTube of her famous second place in Kona in 1982, falling and barely crawling across the finish line.

But if I am honest, I am no Julie Moss. I am indeed a committed athlete, but I also have self preservation in my genes. In my life, triathlon is a hobby (if a highly consuming one at times), and a fantastically fun pastime – but not one I want to hasten my trip to the grave. So some costs are too high for me to pay, and I began to wonder whether this was going to be my first triathlon DNF (“Did Not Finish”).

After about 4 more pit stops, I came across a volunteer tent at mile 14. They volunteers gave me a seat I asked for medical assistance. Within a few minutes, two medics appeared. They asked me questions, took my vitals, and told me I had great blood pressure (thanks!). At this point, I had pretty much decided to quit. I had called Jimmy and told him the situation and that I might come back in a car, not on foot. I had thought things through and come to the conclusion that a) no one would be upset with me b) that I didn’t have anything to prove c) that I absolutely was committed to not ruining my vacation with my friends who had spent a lot of time and money to be there with me, and that d) walking 12 more miles was going to take a long, long time. I was okay with letting it go.

I stood up to get in the medical van. And then, something happened. I thanked the volunteers, and turned and started walking down the road towards mile 15. I made another pit stop in the lava fields. Then I kept walking.

I have no idea why I kept going.

Since the race, I have spent a long time reflecting on why my mind changed. I don’t think it was anything as simple or noble as sheer determination or uber-toughness that wouldn’t let me pull the plug. I had already allowed myself to quit in my mind, and – whether or not this shows a weakness of character, I don’t know – I think I was truly okay with it.

My best guess is that I started walking again down that road because I wanted to see what was on the other side. Some curiosity, perhaps, or a tiny whisper of adventure got the best of me. Also, I thought about Lisa. I thought about how what she had been through – losing her husband, suddenly being left with two children – was hard, truly hard.

I realized that doing an ironman triathlon isn’t hard. It hurts sometimes, but in the scheme of life’s true challenges, it is not difficult. I know some will disagree with me on this point, but the truth is that what we do out there is a screaming, joyful, painful, roller-coaster privilege. And a grand adventure. It’s not suffering on a grand scale.


In the end, it took me one hour and 11 minutes to complete miles 13-16. At mile 16, I ate a banana, which seemed to stop the GI cramping, and I actually started to run. My legs were fine, and I watched the big red ball of sun setting as I entered the 4-mile stretch in the Natural Energy Lab. On the way out of the Energy Lab, my timing chip tripped a wire that brought up a 5-second video my girlfriends had made for me a couple of days before on a huge screen on the side of the road. Out there in the Hawaii dusk, their faces and cheers were so bright and loud that I got tears in my eyes.

Photo credit of the Natural Energy Lab

Photo credit of the Natural Energy Lab

I ran the last 10k of that ironman marathon with more gusto and joy than I ever have before. Strangely but wonderfully, I had the energy to reflect on all that I had to be thankful for: Jimmy, my family, my friends, my coach – all of them teachers and allies for me. My life itself. It was dark by now, and as I ran by people who were struggling I tried to get them to run with me a couple of them did, including Tina from Australia who kept me company for a mile or so. I stopped to check on people who were kneeling on the ground, weaving wildly across the course, laying on the side of the road.

We all have our reasons, I thought. I still wasn’t sure exactly what mine were, but I knew that I had been offered an adventure on the other side of defeat.

I also knew I was going to cross that finish line.

I saw Jimmy when I turned right to run back down Palani. I called, “I rallied!” and stopped and gave him a kiss. On the short dark downhill towards the final stretch on Ali’i Drive, two lone spectators cheered and told me as I ran past, “The next right hand turn is going to change your life!”

Sure enough, as I made the turn, I saw the bouncing bodies of those beautiful girls before I even heard their screams – Jill, Sandy, Sheree, Karen, Angela. I hugged them all and then continued into the finish chute.


The finish line of the Kona Ironman was indeed just as they said – magic. The music was loud, the lights were blaring. Hundreds of people were cheering, their hands outstretched for high-fives. There were furry costumed characters jumping and people waving overflowing beers. The famed Mike Reilly called my name and mispronounced Salida but I didn’t even care. I slapped as many palms as I could, I did a measly jump of hurrah, I raised my arms over my head, and my friend Chris appeared out of nowhere just as I crossed the line.


From the look on my face at the finish line, you could be forgiven for thinking it was my moment of glory alone, that I might have won the whole damn race. In reality, it was my slowest ironman since my first 14 years ago, and my lowest placing in any ironman I have ever completed.


But I think that might not just be a winner’s smile. It might also be the smile of an adventurer, a student who has learned an important lesson, someone who has been defeated and made peace with failure. And then gotten up, thanked her helpers, and decided to have a look to see what might be hiding there on the other side.

Post-race photo courtesy of Chris Vaughan.

Post-race photo courtesy of Chris Vaughan.


Austin, Texas December 15, 2005

“Hope Is Not A Strategy.” (But It Is What Keeps Us Alive.)
Thoughts from a Greenlights Staffer on the Way to Africa

Note: This article was written by Janie for the monthly e-newsletter of Greenlights for NonProfit Success, her recent former employer.

In Malawi, a small country in Africa, prisoners die daily in overcrowded, understaffed prisons. Homeless children roam the street begging for food or a bit of money to survive the day. Across the country, mothers sit next to husbands who are dying of AIDS, not knowing what will happen to them and their children when their only source of income disappears.

Aid organizations have flooded the country, but the best they can do is try to stem the flood of death. “That’s what we do,” says Sylvester Kalonge, the Malawi coordinator for food security and emergencies for CARE International, quoted in the New York Times on December 7.

“We keep people alive.”

In Central Texas this week, a prisoner killed himself in a crowded jail, his parents alleging lack of health care for a chronic mental health disorder. The city government scratches their collective head this Thursday over the hundreds of homeless people begging for money or a bite to eat on Austin streets. Despite a drug revolution in our country, AIDS organizations still man hospice care houses to give dignity to dying patients. Victims from this year’s natural disasters are already threatening to disappear into the cracks of society, desperate and unsure how to rebuild their lives.

Hundreds of nonprofits in Central Texas struggle to face these problems every day, doing it to keep people alive.


In January, I’ll leave my Greenlights post as Director of Education & Communication, a job that I have loved for so many reasons for the last three years. This March, my husband and I will take up residence in Malawi, a country of about 11 million people in southeastern Africa. I’ll be working there for an African nonprofit called the Story Workshop that uses a mix of advocacy and social mobilization on behalf of human rights, democracy, food security, gender equity, AIDS education, conservation of natural resources, literacy and economic development.

Some people have told me they think I’m courageous to go. Some people have gone so far as to say generous.

But the truth is that I am going not so much to help as to be helped, not to teach what I know but to learn from others.

The truth is that I am not sure quite why I need to go.

I know that I want to understand why we do the things we do as people. How we are all bad and good at the same time. Why we know what to do to make things right in the world and yet, around the earth, continue to make the same mistakes, face the same problems. I know that I need to understand better what drives us as humans – what causes us to work, to learn, to love and to hate, to hurt and help each other. In a selfish way, I also need to know what I can do to be useful.

But I am realizing that there is something else, something more powerful I have learned here from Greenlights and many of you, that drives me to go.

At our holiday party this week, one of our board members mentioned a project she is working on with an area nonprofit – one that has been through several false starts and is just now gaining traction. Wondering over all she has learned over the last few years, she said, “As I look back today, the thing I wish I had known then is this: ‘Hope is not a strategy.’”

She was referring, of course, to a popular business book of the same name, a book that champions strategic thinking for salespeople, showing them how to turn intent into results.

I nodded. I agreed with her sentiment and generally with the principle of the book. After all, it corresponds to our key tenets at Greenlights. We give people strategies and skills, direction and resources so that they don’t have to rely on hope alone to fulfill their missions. We try to help organizations channel their passions to make the most powerful difference they can. We talk about plans, about communication, about roles and responsibilities, about outcome and evaluation. We talk mostly about things that can be measured.

But perhaps, I am thinking now, what we don’t talk about enough is hope.

Hope isn’t measurable. It isn’t quantifiable or results-based. On most days, it isn’t even enough for those of us striving to make practical, real change in the world. Hope seems a slippery idea in our world of concrete and facts; we’re suspicious of those who hold it up like a flag as a justification or explanation for anything at all.

But, while hope may not be a strategy, it occurs to me, most of us are driven by it. We must be. Otherwise, why do we go on? Why wake up every day to look head-on at the injustice and the inequality, the abuses that we see in our world, whether Austin or Africa?

This year at our Crossroads Conference, the closing keynote speaker Dan Hayes, (yes, a close relation) mentioned a book called “The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness.” And I wondered how the book’s author, Jerome Groopman, defined true hope for his sick patients who are staring into the chasm of death:

“Hope…” he asserts, “does not cast a veil over perception and thought. In this way, it is different from blind optimism: It brings reality into sharp focus.”

So it must be, I think, this unveiled hope that drives us. It must be the backbone, the motivation, for the work we do. And as I think about my job here at Greenlights for the past three years and my interactions with my colleagues, clients, and so many of you, I realize that what I continue to be inspired by is their – and your – sense of hope in our world.

And I guess this is why I am going to Africa. I guess it is what makes the CARE representatives in Malawi get out of bed every morning. And my suspicion is that it is what carries each of us working with nonprofits in Central Texas throughout each day.

So thanks to you for all the forms your hope has taken in my life – the courage to feel passionately, to think critically, to work, to play, to laugh and to cry.

And if there is one thing that I hope as I leave, I guess, it is that we all collectively manage to do a little more than keep people alive – that we strive to pass along a little bit of hope.

Bon Voyage and my best to all of you who have taught and given me so much!

Cyprus Installment 14: September 23, 2001

We’re all different people than we were the last time I sent an installment. That I know for sure. It’s strange to realize that we are so geographically far away from each other at such a significant time, but we’re all struggling in our own ways with similar questions and emotions. In that, our world has become claustrophobically small. I’m sure that for all of us the attacks have been a devastating reminder of both the ephemeral nature of life and the importance of valuing those that we love.

So first of all, Jimmy and I love you. This usually goes at the end, but it belongs at the beginning – every time. Thanks to all of you for your prayers and thoughts and phone calls and emails. It’s hard not to be home, but I know things are hard there as well. Probably harder. Please know that you are in our minds, laughter, tears, worries and hearts every day.

With all of the rhetoric, opinions, grief and anger spinning everywhere, I tried to write something about anything, anything other than the terrorist attacks. I couldn’t. There is nothing else on my mind. For those of you who are fed up with opinions, skip this installment. Hopefully the next one will be more palatable. But in defense of the editorializing to come, I think it’s important that we each add our voices to the debate.

In the last week of August, I sat in a computer security briefing at the embassy about a new network to be implemented on our office computers. A team of nine federal employees had come to Cyprus, and as part of the training we watched a Power Point presentation on “malicious code,” “data migration,” and passwords. On one of the slides, just for emphasis, a picture of Osama bin Laden peered from one corner and an animated stick of dynamite sparked in the other. After the meeting, the facilitator gave out calendars to people who had answered questions. (For some reason I got one, though the only thing I said was how paranoid it was that our CD-ROM drives were being dismantled out of fear of viruses.)

A couple of days later I found myself in a conversation with one of the Marines posted here. He was telling me about his weight-training regimen and then launched into a pronouncement about how the Marines were the best-trained fighting force in the world. His comments seemed so over the top, and he was so worked up with pride and aggression that I stopped him in the middle of a sentence. “Okay,” I said, “but who are we fighting?”

Those who have been licking their chops for war no doubt see an opportunity to sink combat teeth, and all that defense cash, into. But what and where is the enemy? This seems to be the paradox. George Bush claims we are at war, but war presumes an identifiable enemy. Terrorism of course, goes the rallying cry, but terrorism is a way of life, not a quantifiable physical force. When I read the news I can’t help but see Don Quixote charging at windmills.

This year, the US government handed over more than 50% of all Congressional discretionary money to the Pentagon. That’s $349 billion, compared to the second highest national priority, education, which got a measly $45b. This was supposed to make us all feel safe, but now the enormity of the uselessness of our resources has rendered us helpless beyond belief. Maybe it’s time that we, as a nation, stop to realize the enormous effect our actions have on the world, wake up to the dark place to which our anger is taking us, and admit that, perhaps, our country’s power is its greatest weakness.

If that is so, I hope and pray that we can channel that power into the equality and democracy we all learn as children that our country stands for. I want us to be permitted, each and every one of us, to share our thoughts and contribute to the enormous decisions that are being contemplated at the out-of-reaches of our government today. I hear all the heart-warming stories about Americans uniting in the face of the grief and loss, public opinion coalescing, people coming together as one under the American flag. But I also read reports of shootings and beatings of Arab-Americans, gun and ammunition sales skyrocketing, potential bombings of innocent civilians in far-flung places.

I want to be sure that our well-placed grief and sense of community will not be used against us. I want to know that our support for each other will not be manipulated to justify mindless revenge. I want our differences to be respected, even as we share one another’s pain. I want no part in the culpability for committing atrocities as reprehensible as the crimes that were committed in New York and Washington DC. But no matter what our country does, every one of us will stand as the accused.

After George Bush’s speech on Thursday night, Trent Lott came to the podium and said, “Tonight, there is no opposition party.” While an appeal to solidarity in a time of national tragedy is reasonable, there is a frightening side to this statement as political rhetoric. For while our government was overtly garnering its resources for war and George Bush was declaring a “crusade,” that very day thousands had marched in an antiwar protest in Oregon. Last week more than 150 antiwar demonstrations and peace vigils, drawing thousands, had been organized in New York, New Jersey, Missouri, Maine, Oregon and California. Punk musicians, pacifists, and national church councils have come together to urge integrity and restraint. My hope is that these efforts are not obscured and that the solidarity continues to build – not merely againstterror but for peace.

Despite Cypriots’ dubious feelings about American foreign policy in the area over the past forty years, and notwithstanding a vocal minority that don’t mind spewing the “you got what you deserve” rhetoric towards specific Americans, the support from the people around us here has been incredible. The day after the attacks, I got calls and emails from people I had met in passing, once or twice in meetings, or through friends of friends. The scores of flower bouquets placed on the embassy gates by Cypriots bring tears to my eyes almost every time I see them. (Courtesy of Cathy Rissler, you can see a photo of this – though it doesn’t do justice to the scale – at`hankinhsd/thankyou.htm, page 4. Last Friday, the sirens went off at noon, here as well as all across Europe. Cars stopped, interviews halted, and everyone took three minutes of silence to grieve for the lives that were lost and to say thanks for the ones saved.

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Other Notes of Significance

Robin came to visit last week. While a strange and sad time, it was so wonderful to have home come to Cyprus. Having her here felt like having an anchor to hold onto. We went to the beach, saw a belly dancer and went to a barbecue. We also, you guessed it, did a triathlon. Like the other visiting members of Team In(adequate) Training before her, Robin was a standout, completing the longest distance possible and even winning a medal.

The Wales Half-Ironman Triathlon on September 9 was quite an experience for these two innocents from the temperate climates of Cyprus and Texas USA. Two days before the race, we tested the lake water for the swim amidst falling rain and temperatures. Jimmy had a panic attack from the cold, and I felt numb to my skull. The water temperature, it turned out, was a balmy 55 degrees. As it turned out, it rained all week. When race day arrived, nothing had changed. The wind was whipping at gusts of up to about 40 mph, and the sky was black with rain clouds.

Nevertheless, the swim went off better than could be expected and, numb toes notwithstanding, the bike ride began without a hitch. Within the first five miles, the wind blew my right contact out of my eye, and I was down on the ground in the way of bikers futilely feeling the pavement. Resolutely, I decided that this is why nature gives us two eyes, and continued on. Unfortunately, nature also gives us replays (What did Marx say – the first time as tragedy, the second as farce?), and at mile 48 of the 56-mile ride, my left contact was also lost to the wind. Down I was on the pavement once again, this time with my face closer to the ground.

By this time, I had lost my capacity for patience. The bike course had been a grueling battle with winds and steep two- and three-mile hills already. I was tired of distracting myself with grandiose visions of myself winning the Tour de France, and at this point, even the saving grace of spectacular views had been deprived me. Being out in the midst of the Welsh countryside with little to guide me, I continued on carefully and squintingly. At this point, I hadn’t yet seen Jimmy, who had started in the second swim wave fifteen minutes behind me and hadn’t yet passed me on the bike. At mile 50, he blew by me, and when I slowed him down to ask his opinion on my plight, he pulled his glasses off his face and handed them to me. What heroism! What bravado! What a guy.

In this way, with much-too-large glasses bouncing on the end of my nose, I completed the run portion of the race and crossed the finish line. Jimmy had finished with flying colors 26 minutes before me at 5 hours and 23 minutes. I pulled in, limping and cold but proud, at 5:49.

Once again, we love you all. Remember how firmly you are here with us in our psyches and hearts – not only now, but all the time. Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you. Please keep us in your thoughts and send us an email when you get a chance.  If you want to call, here’s an incentive: We’ll call you back. The rate is dirt cheap from here, so if you pay for a minute, we’ll foot the bill for the conversation.

Much love,
Janie and Jimmy

Wayback: Cyprus Installment 9: May 14, 2001

Today, Jimmy’s project, designed to provide improved water resources to Cyprus, succeeded with rousing triumph. After days that Jimmy and fellow USGS employees spent dancing around a campfire, begging to gods in ritual ceremonies, and squinting hopefully at tiny clouds on the horizon, the sky opened up and dumped about three feet of rain on the unsuspecting island. I couldn’t see out of the window, and from the myriad of accidents, flooded streets and tractors stopped in the middle of roads for no other obvious reason than wet, no one else could either.

The storm’s torrential nature caused me to ponder the paucity of available escape routes from a flooded island. In Texas, I mean, you can just get in the car and drive. Here, it only gets you to much deeper water.

Of course, at least the rain cleaned the caking Sahara off the car. Yesterday a high-pressure system picked up the African desert and dropped it on Cyprus. We could barely see across the street through the billowing clouds of brown dirt that settled, from what I could tell, at just about nose level all around us. This is none too comfortable during a triathlon at the coast, where gulping huge breaths of soil is only second to blowing your nose and understanding without question that your orifices are packed with mud.

But, as the tradition seems to go with Cypriot sporting events, this wasn’t the only disturbance of the day. We took special care to give ourselves plenty of time to get to the race site and arrived with nearly an hour to spare. The race was on one of the British air bases, and we had to check in with security at the gate. They received quick permission from the race coordinators to wave us through.

Then one of the guards noticed our license plates. We had to pull over to the side while they made several phone calls to the other security. As a courtesy to diplomats, each diplomatic vehicle there must have a private escort to keep its occupants from losing their way on the base. And gosh darn those charming Brits – diplomatic courtesy is so important that it’s become regulation.  Unfortunately, we had to accept this unwanted courtesy for half an hour until someone showed up to be the private chaperon of two silly Americans with dirt covering their car, bedhead both, and a pile of bikes in the backseat.

We arrived just as all the athletes were heading to the water, and if we hadn’t been so breathless and out-of-sorts, we probably would have thought something strange about the myriad of $2000 bikes lined up in neat rows and the muscleheads in wetsuits rolling their eyes at the delay of the race by two dorks in jeans and fleece jackets. After the race, we discovered, as all 40 of them put on matching red polo shirts, their true identity: the British army’s national triathlon team. Aha. All the whizzing past me like I was moonwalking, all the muscles rippling in the Sahara air, all the grimness. It all made sense to me now.

Jimmy recently returned from two weeks at the other British base, Dhekelia, where the US government was footing the bill for him to sit in a classroom for an hour at a time, five hours a day, learning crucial Turkish phrases such as “Chicken, please” and “My pair is Janie.” Each hour was punctuated by a long tea break (those gosh darn Brits), and the last hour was punctuated by the exclamation point of five or six hours at the beach.

On the night before the last class, I went with Jimmy’s class to a small town called Pyla, the only town in all of Cyprus where Greek and Turkish Cypriots live side-by-side, for dinner. This was the chance for the students to apply their newfound knowledge in a practical setting, and it all started off well enough. Somehow, though, after about four hours of constant eating and drinking, things started to reel off designated course.

First, the heavy drinking, heavy set, heavily sunburned wife of one of the British students (those gosh darn Brits) began to laugh with increasing volume and regularity. This would be okay except that she emits this high-pitched staccato which sounds, I’m not joking, exactly like your best imitation of machine gun fire – only five octaves higher.

So then those gosh darn Brits started telling every joke they could think of to keep the spectacle firing, Bernadette from Ireland who bears a striking resemblance to a young Meryl Streep (and whose husband, by the way, is a spitting image of Woody on “Toy Story” – if you’ve never seen the movie, think a severely elongated Mel Gibson) started picking a fight with some student who had called her a snob, and then suddenly there was dancing and other flailing of limbs and loud British patriotic songs and mystified Turkish waiters.

And the whole time our host’s wife and 21-year-old daughter were sitting there in the middle, looking back and forth quizzically, waiting, as is Cypriot custom, for someone to leave so they could go home.

Some might assert “Vacation!” at the sound of all this, but Jimmy kept busy in his time in Dhekelia. He rode his bike, finished a Tom Clancy thriller and bought a motorcycle. It’s a charming 1979 little blue number with 100 ccs of power. The engine makes appropriate Mighty Mouse sound effects as Jimmy whizzes down the road in his oversize helmet, shouting Turkish phrases into the wind. Soon it will sport a brand-spanking new basket to hold important government papers.

My class ended last week, which was kind of a bummer, but kind of good because now I don’t have to describe frat parties to a bunch of teens who are, every one of them, already responsible drinkers or apologize for the fact that numerous Americans will, most probably, ask them questions like, “Now, what is Cyprus again?” and “Is there electricity there? What about planes?” I hope to teach a writing class to the same students this summer. Hopefully, despite my time in advertising, I can remember that not everyone in this world writes in five-word, pithy sentences that express only a subject’s positive, optimistic and revenue-generating attributes.

Hunger. Craving. Desire. That’s what makes me, well, me. The me I am now, staring ravenous at the keyboard. The me I will be ten minutes from now in the kitchen. The me I’ll be while cooking a succulent, tender chili-con-carne from (insert Cypriot brand here). Yep. That’s me. Isn’t it time you let yourself be, well, you, too? (Legal birdseed here, describing why said company cannot be responsible for people discovering themselves or for any punitive damages sustained by afore-mentioned chili-con-carne.)

Have yourselves a dandy lunch!

Lots of love,
Jimmy and Janie

Cyprus Installment #1: January 21, 2001

While you slept last night, or maybe ransacked the fridge because you couldn’t sleep or watched The Breakfast Club for the hundredth time or just lay there, wondering if you should ransack the fridge or watch The Breakfast Club, Jimmy and I woke up over here in Cyprus.

And because we are eight hours ahead of you, we are kind of like that television show where the guy knows the news before it happens, so we know a lot of things you don’t know about world affairs and what they say on NPR really early before you get up along with a bunch of other important stuff, which means that we have a certain power over you. And, unlike that tv show, we might not use our power for good, which means you’d do yourself a favor if you Ok?

Now. Send emails. Call. Tell us you miss us. Mail big care packages with candy and mushy cards and marshmallows. Come visit. We miss you.

As for the less-needy parts of our psyches, they are doing very well too, thank you. Cyprus is really one heck of a treat. It needs to be written about poetically, there is so much to tell, and I’m not sure I can do it justice. So I’ll just tell you right now some things about the city we live in, Nicosia. Sometime when I’ve had too much wine, I’ll try the poetry part and let you know how it goes.

Everywhere I go in Nicosia, I expect to see the ocean. I swear I almost smell the salt here, even though the coast is an hour away. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but over every hill, and there are lots of them, past neighborhood upon neighborhood of Mediterranean-style houses, I am still expecting that when I get over the next rise there it will be, catching the sun and stretching forever.

Instead, there is a valley down there. And mountains, two ranges of them. We can see both from our house. One is on the Turkish side, in the north, and one is on the Greek side, in the south (because Turkey is the only country that recognizes northern Cyprus as its own entity, you get bad looks and raised eyebrows if you don’t use the properly sensitive terminology: just “the north” or, as the Greeks put it, “the occupied territory,” please.) The UN has its longest-standing mission ever here. The UN base is on what used to be, before the war, the Cyprus airport. The ! UN hangar is visible out of the front of our house.

Across from the west-facing side of our house, and closer than the UN hangar, there is a construction site. Nicosia is expanding very quickly, so a lot of new neighborhoods are going up. They all look the same; I suppose that to some Cypriots maybe it’s the equivalent of the cookie-cutter neighborhoods crawling like lice over every city in North America, but I don’t mind it one bit here.

All the houses are painted bright white with columns in front and Mediterranean-like porches and red tile slanted roofs. Well, except some of them. Some of the houses have rebar sticking up from flat, unfinished housetops because, in Cyprus, you don’t have to pay property taxes on your home while it is still unfinished. So unfinished roofs are dotted in with the red tile kind. But the homes are big and very pretty. Including our marble palace. Sometimes I catch myself still holding my breath, thinking maybe it’s all a dream. But not really. I’m not really still holding my ! breath. I’d be dead. Anyway.

There are no houses, finished roofs or otherwise, in this construction site across the way yet. But there are roads. Mazes of them. And sidewalks too. And there are huge mounds of dirt and lonely telephone poles standing there without wires, like naked, headless tree trunks. All stretching for about a square mile or so. The bleakness of it all reminds me of the moon’s surface, or empty lava fields (minus the sidewalks. I don’t think lava fields have sidewalks.)
But it’s good for running, so the second day we were here we started running over there in the lava fields.

And you know what we found? We found army bunkers. Untouched, which is what makes a lot of those big mounds of dirt. The lava fields, apparently, were a strategic point for the Greeks to shoot up the Turks as they marched from the north in 1974, across the old airport and from the mountains. I guess it worked, because this is still Greek Cypriot territory. We scrambled up one day and saw that the machine gun mounts were still in place, the door still on the entrance.

Every afternoon, about 4:30 or 5:00, prospective inhabitants of the to-be lava field neighborhood drive around these roads, each car with a big, white fold-out plot map that shows them where each lot will be. “Oh honey, look,” I can just imagine them saying, “See that shooting port? That’s where our bedroom will be! Neat!”

And then they drive off in their cars, not aware of how WRONG it is for them to be on that side of the road and how it wreaks havoc on my sense of balance to have to find that, after everything I’ve learned, the left-hand turn is the easy one and the right-hand potentially fatal. Geez. I thought at least some truths in life were immutable. We have gotten a car, though, and no accidents have yet occurred (at least we made it through your sleep last night). It’s a nice little Mitsubishi Galant and the only qualm I have with it, other than the obvious every-day-is-opposite-day-here thing, is that the windshield wipers and the turn signal are switched, so that every time I make any turn at all, I get a nice little swish-swash across my already-terrified field of vision. Thanks.

Jimmy has been spending this week at the Embassy, which has a weightiness level that is second only to funerals and police stations (without drunks). We had our pictures for our IDS taken in the interrogation room. I’d never seen an interrogation room before, but it was pretty much what you see on the movies, minus the exposed light bulb hanging down in the middle of the table. Anyway Jimmy made a joke and we all laughed and a Marine stuck his head out and told us no loitering at the Embassy and then made a crack about twisting someone’s arm up behind their back. I think he was joking.

Tonite (as in when you are at your desks at work) we will be going to the Marine House for Mexican food night and free beer. Maybe I’ll get to meet the guy who told Jimmy he was running the Cyprus Marathon in March. Jimmy offered that he could run long runs with us but he looked at Jimmy like he was handing him a crazy ferret on a string and told him no thanks, he was already training: by running three-miles fast.

Hopefully Jimmy and I will begin Greek classes next week. That should be both a comedy and tragedy in its own right. I knew I shoulda joined a sorority; then at least maybe I could figure out the alphabet. I’ll keep you all posted anyway.

Our phone number is:
(02) 371 857
(I don’t know what the international code for Cyprus is, but I’m confident that with a minimal amount of sleuthing you can call the operator and ask “What is the country code for Cyprus?” You are allowed to blame “extra” costs on lousy phone-calling.)

We think about you guys all the time. I’m sorry for the mass email, but I figured quality over quantity this time around. Please let us know how things are going over there; we miss you all. And here’s a bit of advice from a tiny, war-torn island: remember, when things get dark and stormy and life is blowing up like land mines all around you, get three sturdy chairs from the kitchen, a big sheet from the closet, and fortifications from the fridge. Then hide out all day in your fort.

Time for a nap. I miss The Breakfast Club.
Hugs and kisses all,
Janie and Jimmy