Run 95 : Marshall Islands – Majuro

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Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/

Date : 21st January, 2017

Time :  58’ 37”

Total distance run to date : 950 km

Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1543565056

I had so many kind messages after my blog about being diagnosed with skin cancer, that I should probably start with a quick health update. The melanoma has been removed and the ‘margins were clear’- which I understand is good news. The piratical scar above is actually the result of the precautionary follow up op to remove a  further 1 cm of cheek around the site of the melanoma. Assuming they don’t find anything funny in the newly excavated flesh, then I should be in the clear.

Thank you Ben Esdaile and everyone at the Whittington hospital – you’ve been great. The NHS at its best.

And the rest of you, especially the pale freckly ones, if you don’t want to end up looking like that, then PROTECT YOURSELF FROM THE SUN!

And back to the blog which, this week, comes from Majuro in the Marshall Islands.

It had been a 12 hour plus journey to get there from Guam. Partly due to 9 hours of island hopping via Chuuk (Truk), Pohnpei, Kosrae and Kwajalein. Partly due to the usual nonsense of checking-in two hours in advance of an international flight. And partly because of the ‘not obvious why we don’t get moving’ transfer once I’d landed.

By that stage I was exhausted after endless travel, and virtually no sleep, in the previous 48 hours. I was looking forward to my hotel which billed itself as a “locally owned and operated property in a Pacific island paradise.” Turned out that “a Pacific Fawlty Towers” would have had a better chance of complying with the Trade Descriptions Act. Wifi cost $10 for 100 minutes and didn’t work in your room ; the tap water wasn’t ‘recommendable’ for drinking ; a 2 course dinner order crashed the system ; and there was a large cockroach sauntering across the dining room floor. (I know cockroaches usually scurry but this one seemed to have adapted to the local pace of life.)

Not that any of it really mattered as I crashed out straight after dinner. And then, body clock in pieces, woke 3 hours later at 2am (2pm UK time) and couldn’t get back to sleep. By 6 am I’d solved all the world’s problems so I got up and readied myself to run.

There’s really only one thoroughfare on Majuro – Lagoon Road. In order to complete my 10km, I therefore devised the cunning plan of running down it for 5 km – and then turning round and running back to the hotel.

First stop on the run was the Bikini Atoll Town hall (pic below). Bikini Atoll is 850 km northwest of Majuro and its where the US tested a lot of nuclear weapons – 23 between 1946 and 1958 to be precise. Including the 1954 Bravo Bomb which was 1000 times as powerful as the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It vaporised 3 islands.

The atoll was evacuated pre testing and is still uninhabitable (though tourist diving apparently now takes place there). The Town Hall on Majuro is the centre for the efforts to win additional compensation from the US on behalf of those who lived on Bikini Atoll.

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As I continued my run, the sun started to rise so I went ocean side – the atoll can’t have been more than c 100m wide at this point – and took what I hoped would be a glorious Pacific sunrise picture (below).

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I then looked down and realised that the shoreline was effectively a giant rubbish tip (picture below). I don’t know how much of the rubbish is generated locally, and how much comes from the sea, but either way it was a little shocking. And that’s not the only threat from the ocean. If sea levels rise as projected then Majuro – highest elevation 3 metres – will literally disappear from the face of the earth.

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Slightly further up the road I came to one of the few side streets – which I took for a change of scenery. Immediately the standard of housing dropped dramatically and the road smelt of urine. Normally I make a point of running in areas that remind me of the reality of the living conditions faced by so many people around the world. However, in this case there were masses of dogs  on the street and, having been attacked by Alsatians in the past, I’m wary of them. I turned back to the main road and made it to the 5km mark at a little cove on the lagoon side.

Time for a photo of the beautiful lagoon I thought. Except that the lagoon was full of commercial boats at anchor and the odd wreck – like the one in the picture below that was about 10m offshore.

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The run back to the hotel was a relatively non-eventful grind through the remaining 5 km.  And I never really did find the tropical paradise I’d been expecting.

I’m conscious that this blog sound negative – and I hate being negative about the places I visit. So let me end by saying that Majuro looked stunning from the air (picture below) as I flew off later that morning.

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PS I felt so guilty about writing a negative blog – based on less than 24 hours in Majuro – that I Googled to see what other people had to say about the place. There’s not a huge amount on the web but I think it’s a fair summary to say that, while there are obviously some lovely off shore spots, general opinion about Majuro seems to be in line with my experience.  This from wikitravel perhaps sums it up:

“Unfortunately, Majuro has become polluted, both on land and in the water. Other than the island of Laura, off Majuro, there is little to see with regards to a typical tropical island setting. One can visit the Telecommunications Authority building for an interesting insight into telecommunications in such a small civilization. You can also visit the College of the Marshall Islands to make an appointment with an academic who can tell you more about an area/field. It is essential to travel off Majuro and to visit a neighbouring island or separate atoll, such as Arno. These neighbouring atolls are by far less polluted and offer the true tropical paradise setting.”

The Facts & Stats

The Marshall Islands, officially the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is located near the equator in the Pacific Ocean, slightly west of the International Date Line. The country’s population of 53,158 people (2011 Census) is spread out over 29 coral atolls comprising 1,156 individual islands and islets.

Micronesian colonists gradually settled the Marshall Islands during the 2nd millennium BC, with inter-island navigation made possible using traditional stick charts. Islands in the archipelago were first explored by Europeans in the 1520s. The islands derive their name from British explorer John Marshall, who visited in 1788. The islands were historically known by the inhabitants as “jolet jen Anij” (Gifts from God).

The European powers recognized Spanish sovereignty over the islands in 1874. Later, Spain sold the islands to the German Empire in 1884, and they became part of German New Guinea in 1885. In World War I the Empire of Japan occupied the Marshall Islands, which in 1919 the League of Nations combined with other former German territories to form the South Pacific Mandate. In World War II, the United States conquered the islands in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign. Along with other Pacific Islands, the Marshall Islands were then consolidated into the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands governed by the US. Self-government was achieved in 1979, and full sovereignty in 1986, under a Compact of Free Association with the United States. Marshall Islands has been a United Nations member state since 1991.

Politically, the Marshall Islands is a presidential republic in free association with the United States, with the US providing defense, subsidies, and access to U.S. based agencies such as the FCC and the USPS. With few natural resources, the islands’ wealth is based on a service economy, as well as some fishing and agriculture; aid from the United States represents a large percentage of the islands’ gross domestic product. The country uses the United States dollar as its currency.

The majority of the citizens of the Marshall Islands are of Marshallese descent, though there are small numbers of immigrants from the United States, China, Philippines, and other Pacific islands. The two official languages are Marshallese, which is a member of the Malayo-Polynesian languages, and English. Almost the entire population of the islands practises some religion, with three-quarters of the country either following the United Church of Christ – Congregational in the Marshall Islands (UCCCMI) or the Assemblies of God.

Majuro is the capital and largest city of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. It is also a large coral atoll of 64 islands in the Pacific Ocean The atoll has a land area of 9.7 square kilometres (3.7 sq mi) and encloses a lagoon of 295 square kilometres (114 sq mi). As with other atolls in the Marshall Islands, Majuro consists of narrow land masses.

The main population center, named Delap-Uliga-Djarrit, DUD – three contiguous motus, had 20,301 people as of 2012. Majuro has a port, shopping district, hotels, and an international airport. And the occasional mad runner.

Humans have inhabited the atoll for at least 2,000 years.

Finally, here’s the latest World Bank data for the Marshall Islands – with the year 2000 as a comparison.

Population                                        52 993                   2015                    52 161             2000

GDP                                                    $179 million         2015                    $111 million   2000

GDP Growth                                     1.0%                       2014                    5.4%                2001

GNI per capita                                  $4770                    2015                    $2850              2000

% below poverty line                      NA                                                       NA

Life expectancy at birth                 NA                                                       65.2 years       2000

Primary school enrolment*           105.4%                  2011                   120.5%            2002

*Percentage can exceed 100% due to the inclusion of over and under aged students

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Run 94 : Guam – Tamuning

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Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/

Date : 19th January, 2017

Time :  57’ 10”

Total distance run to date : 940 km

Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1543565020

Media coverage:

http://www.kuam.com/clip/13041695/dan-thompson-runs-to-battle-cancer

http://www.guampdn.com/story/life/2017/01/21/globetrotting-runner-raises-cancer-awareness-guam/96811964/

http://www.kuam.com/story/34304004/2017/01/19/dan-thompson-runs-to-battle-cancer

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q-zwKO_xmBs

https://www.facebook.com/Shamrocks-Pub-and-SOML-Racing-Running-Club-5k-754626871280248/

https://www.facebook.com/shamrocksguam/

http://guamhub.com/guam-running-club/

Guam didn’t start that well. I’d left home in London at 7pm on the Tuesday evening and, 24 hours of travel and ten time zones later, I’d reached Immigration at Guam airport. By now it was at 5 am on Thursday morning (local time) and I desperately needed to get to my hotel room.

The only trouble was that, having travelled 7 500 miles, I didn’t seem to be able to get any further.

The customs officer couldn’t find my US visa in my passport. I showed it to him. He didn’t say anything for a while. Then he spoke into his mouthpiece, “Secondary”.

I was escorted into a room off the customs area and my passport was taken away. Surely my visa was OK? It ran to 9th Feb and I’d checked before leaving – it was definitely the right kind of tourist visa.

Mild panic ensued. So much had been organised for me in Guam – I couldn’t let people down. And I certainly couldn’t stomach hanging around before being put on a flight back to London – apart from anything else, I really needed some sleep…

‘Your visa only allowed you a one-off entry into the US. And you used that up last summer’. The nightmare scenario I dread at every border – not being allowed in – was happening. Help!

“The UK and Guam have reciprocal arrangements. You need to fill in some forms but we can let you in.” Hooray!

I eventually got to my hotel – the Wyndham Garden –  at about 6 am and asked for an early check-in. No problem (thank you!).

A frantic email to Luke, the ever patient travel agent, about my upcoming trip to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin islands – which would now have to be postponed – and then some blessed sleep.

Later that day I was picked up by Dave the camera man and taken to Dial Rent to Own – where I was Athlete of the Week. A richly deserved (…) award, of course, and one that meant that I got to hold a big laminated cheque and be interviewed by one of Guam’s top comedians. More importantly, it meant that they’ll send $100 to my charity of choice – Cancer Research. (Dave told me that cancer and diabetes rates are on the increase in Guam – something I hear in too many of the countries I visit.)

I’ve got Ryan, proprietor of Shamrocks Gastropub, to thank for organising the award. I’ve also got him, Myra & The Guam Running Club, Phil & the local Hash Harriers and Eric & the SOML Running Club for organising the run.

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About 100 of us gathered at Shamrocks – top picture – and, after plenty of photos and a speech or two, we set off on either a 5km or a 10km run. I have to say, it was a superbly organised run. Masses of runners, cones and volunteers to show us the route and a number of water stops.

The only slight issue was that I wasn’t meant to be running so close to my recent op (to remove a melanoma from my cheek). The concern being that exercise can open up the wound and cause bleeding. And sure enough  I could feel the pulling on the wound and then something running down my face. Thankfully it turned out to be sweat rather than blood.

After the run, there were more media interviews, plenty of photos (bottom of the blog) and selfies including some with cancer survivors (below). (I always find it inspiring to meet cancer survivors / fighters on these runs – there’s no better reminder of why I’m doing this mad challenge.)

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To top it off Ryan had organised food, drink and a raffle for everyone. Overall, $645 was raised on the night. Fantastic stuff!

Finally, as a way of saying thank you to Ryan, and everyone else, here are my top travellers tips for Guam:

  1. If you’re in Guam, and you need anything to eat or drink, then Shamrocks is definitely the place to go.
  2. If you’re in Guam, and you’re looking to do a run, then the Guam Running Club, the SOML Club and the Guam Hash Harriers are there for you.
  3. If you’re in Guam, and you need somewhere to stay near the airport, then the Wyndham Garden comes recommended.
  4. If you’re in  Guam, and you’re looking for household furnishings, then Dial Rent to Own is for you.
  5. And if you’re not in Guam, then why not? It’s full of great people!

The Facts & Stats

Guam is an unincorporated and  organized territory of the United States. Located in the western Pacific Ocean, the capital city is Hagåtña, and the most populous city is Dededo. In 2015, 161,785 people resided on Guam. Guamanians are American citizens by birth. Guam has an area of 544 km2 (210 sq mi) and a population density of 297/km² (770/sq mi). It is the largest and southernmost of the Mariana Islands, and the largest island in Micronesia.

The Chamorros, Guam’s indigenous people, settled the island approximately 4,000 years ago. Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to visit the island on March 6, 1521 and Guam was colonized by Spain in 1668. During the Spanish–American War, the United States captured Guam on June 21, 1898. Under the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded Guam to the United States on December 10, 1898. Guam is among the seventeen Non-Self Governing Territories of the United Nations.

On December 7, 1941, hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Guam was captured by the Japanese, and was occupied for thirty months. During the occupation, Guamanians were subjected to forced labour, beheadings, rape, and torture. American forces recaptured the island on July 21, 1944; Liberation Day commemorates the victory.

Since the 1960s, tourism and the United States Armed Forces have played a big part in the economy. I met a number of people from various branches of the armed forces and it was fascinating to talk to them as they’re effectively America’s front line with North Korea and China.

Though the votes of Guam citizens don’t count in US general elections, the territory nonetheless conducts a straw poll to gauge islanders’ preference for president. The 2016 straw poll favored Clinton over Trump by approximately three to one.

  • Hillary Clinton (Democrat) – 18,146
  • Donald Trump(Republican) – 6,191
  • Emidio Soltysik (Socialist) – 1,086

Finally, here’s the World Bank data for Guam – with the year 2000 as a comparison. (Most of the data I normally include at this stage isn’t available for Guam – presumably because it is part of the USA.)

Population                                        170 thousand      2015             155 thousand       2000

GDP                                                    NA                         2015                NA                       2000

GDP Growth                                     NA                         2014                NA                       2001

GNI per capita                                  NA                        2015                NA                        2000

% below poverty line                      NA                         2015                NA                       2006

Life expectancy at birth                 79.1 years            2014                75.1 years          2000

Primary school enrolment             NA                         2014                NA                       2000

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Cancer – Do I Not Like That!

It’s a funny old thing, going to the hospital knowing that you may be minutes away from hearing that you have cancer.

However much you try to fool yourself, and others, you’re a little nervous. Maybe even a touch scared.

Which is understandable given that most of us know nothing about cancer – the Big C – other than that:

a) It can kill you ; and

b) While there are treatments for some cancers – often very effective treatments – there’s no cure

In any event, that’s how I was feeling as Liz and I waited at the bus stop on the way to the Whittington hospital. I thought about my mother who had a pain in her lower back. Which turned out to be the lung cancer that eventually killed her. I thought about my father who recently had cancerous cells removed – and all the ensuing worries and complications. I thought about all the millions of people dealing with cancer on a daily basis. And I thought about all the people who, like me, were off to see their doctor that day to find out whether or not they have cancer.

I also thought, and here you may feel that I was being a little melodramatic, that I really, really, really, really, really wanted to go on living. Not just so that I can see what Liz and I do with the rest of our lives and all our various projects. Not just so that I can see a team I support win the World Cup. Or the Euros. Or the Champions League. Or the Premiership. Or the FA Cup. Or the South Highgate Over 40s Five Aside Cup. (Anything, really, would be nice…)

But mostly because I have two girls and I desperately want to be their father for as long as humanly possible.

Hang on, I hear you metaphorically cry. Last time we heard from you in one of these blogs you were running around West Africa. How did we now end up in the company of a frankly gloomy and somewhat self-obsessed man at a chilly bus stop?

About a year ago, Liz noticed a red mark on my cheek which seemed to get bigger and brighter over time. She suggested I see a doctor. I demurred.  She re-suggested I see a doctor. I procrastinated. She insisted I see a doctor. I booked an appointment. Which I then somehow forgot to attend.

Eventually, I saw a doctor. He didn’t know what the mark was but made an appointment with a dermatologist at the Whittington. He couldn’t make a diagnosis based on a visual inspection alone so I had a quick op to take a biopsy sample. I was told that it could be a range of things including, in the worst case, a melanoma (a type of skin cancer that can spread to other organs).

After about 6 weeks of waiting for the results, I suddenly received 4 (sic) almost identical letters from the NHS, dated 5th January, telling me that I had an appointment at the Whittington on 10th January. When things are moving that quickly within the NHS, it’s hard not to fear that there might be something wrong. Hence Mr Introspective & Concerned of the Local Bus Stop.

The wait was mercifully brief at the hospital and we must have been in front of the consultant within ten minutes. The moment of truth had arrived.

“You have a melanoma”.

Bugger. Shit. And damnation. Do I not like that.

On the plus side, the melanoma appears to be early stage (ta very much Liz!) and thin (0.3mm). As Dr Esdaile put it, “If you had to go shopping for a skin cancer, then this is the one you’d take off the shelf”.

The Whittington has a fantastic system where you have your consultation and then, if required, move almost directly on to your operation. Within half an hour I’d had a local anaesthetic and was experiencing the odd sensation of being able to hear someone scraping flesh off my cheek without being able to feel it. The scrapings, or the ‘full pizza’ as the quotable Dr Esdaile described it, will now go off for further testing.

We should know the results in 3 or 4 weeks at which point I’ll have a further operation to, with luck, remove any other affected areas.

And how will all this impact my runs, the usual subject of these blogs? Well, I’ll have to delay my next trip by two days to wait to get the stitches removed (and to let the wound heal a little.) But otherwise, I’m ever more determined to complete my runs and raise money for cancer research. After all, now its personal!

Finally, let me end by giving some (obviously non-expert) advice:

  1. PROTECT YOUR SKIN FROM THE SUN!

Applying endless amounts of sun screen is a faff ; and wearing sun tops and hats is an affront to one’s dignity. But they’re worth it.

  1. IF YOU’RE SEEING YOUR MOLES, FRECKLES OR SKIN CHANGE, THEN GET THEM CHECKED!
  1. IF YOU’RE PALE SKINNED, FRECKLY, AND HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO A LOT OF SUN AT SOME STAGE IN YOUR LIFE, THEN BE EXTRA VIGILANT!
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Run 92 : Togo – Lome

 

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Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/

Date : 17th November, 2016

Time :  57’ 28”

Total distance run to date : 920 km

Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1458667808

Abomination.

I’ve been trying to think of a word to describe slavery and ‘abomination’ is the best I can come up with. An unthinkable, indescribable abomination.

And, tragically, it’s still with us. Its estimated that there are still between 12 and 30 million slaves in the world split between bonded labour / debt bondage ; forced labour ; and human trafficking.

And we’re not free of it here in the UK. Just before I sat down to write this blog (which I’ve been composing in my head for some time), I clicked on the BBC news website. And there, on the home page, was  an article about modern slavery in nail bars the UK. (Modern slavery has been something of a focus in the UK since the Modern Slavery Act – under the guidance of Theresa May when she was Home Secretary – was passed in 2015.)

Of course, slavery has been with us since time immemorial. Ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, the Romans, ancient China, ancient India, the pre Columbian civilisations of the Americas – all had slaves. Next time you admire some ancient monument or temple it may be worth remembering that is was likely built with slave labour.

But for all this ancient and modern slavery, I suspect that when many people in the West think about slavery, they think about the Atlantic slave trade of the 15th to 19th centuries. This saw c 12 million slaves shipped from the coastal areas around modern day Benin and Togo – originally to South America and then increasingly to the Caribbean and the USA. Allowing for the numbers who died between capture and arrival in the ‘New World’, my sense is that there could easily have been 20 million people enslaved in West Africa during this period.

To put it mildly this was an enormous business that involved indigenous Africans who captured the slaves in the first place, Europeans who shipped them across the Atlantic, and slave owners in the Americas and the Caribbean who ruthlessly exploited the slaves – and their descendants. Horror on an almost unimaginable scale.

Starting in the mid-18th century a few European countries started to pass anti-slavery laws – although these were often limited in scope (Portugal) or later reversed (Napoleonic France). Abolitionism picked up pace in the 19th century. In 1807, Britain passed the Abolition of the Slave trade Act. Originally restricted to British ships, Britain used diplomatic pressure and the strength of the Royal Navy to expand the scope of its operations and, in the end, the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron is estimated to have freed between 100 000 and 150 000 slaves. (Lest we pat our ourselves on the backs, I’ve read that abolishing indigenous slavery in Africa was later used as one of the rationales for the colonisation of much of Africa by Britain and other European nations.)

A similar process was occurring in the Americas with the US outlawing the slave trade in 1807, and then subsequently making it illegal within the US (fully abolishing slavery with the passing of the 13th amendment in 1865). By 1850, the last major participant in the slave trade – Brazil – passed an antislavery law and thereafter the trade was mostly illegal and at substantially lower volumes.

And what has all this got to do with my run in Lome, the capital of Togo? Really only that, as an Englishman who’s spent time on the Slave Coast in West Africa, I felt that I should confront and somehow address the evil that is/was slavery. This blog is an attempt to do that and I hope it’s a fair and reasonably accurate summary of events. However, I am obviously no expert on slavery so please don’t hesitate to let me know if you think it needs changing.

My problems at the start of my run were exceedingly trivial in comparison. Firstly, it was my second run in 12 hours, and my fifth in 75 hours, and I was feeling a little knackered. Secondly, the air was very humid and I already had a bag full of sweaty running gear which I was struggling to dry out. So I decided to run shirtless (hence the picture above).

My hotel was on the coast and sat in the middle of an area of what I guess might be called shanty towns. There was plenty of street life and, while trying not to be too voyeuristic, it was fascinating to see it all – helped along by plenty of smiles and the odd bit of banter. It was a sweaty grind as well but, hey ho, running can be like that.

And now for the facts and stats.

Togo, officially the Togolese Republic, is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. Its capital Lomé is located on the coast. Togo covers 57,000 square kilometres (22,008 square miles), making it one of the smallest countries in Africa, with a population of approximately 7.5 million.

From the 16th century to the 18th century, the coastal region was a major trading centre for slaves, earning Togo and the surrounding region the name “The Slave Coast”. In 1884, Germany declared Togoland a protectorate. After World War I, rule over Togo was transferred to France. Togo gained its independence from France in 1960. In 1967, Gnassingbé Eyadéma led a successful military coup d’état after which he became president. At the time of his death in 2005, Gnassingbé was the longest-serving leader in modern African history, having been president for 38 years. His son Faure Gnassingbé took over as President and remains in position to this day, having won his third election in 2015.

Togo is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture, with a climate that provides good growing seasons. The official language is French, with many other languages spoken, particularly those of the Gbe family. The largest religious group in Togo consists of those with traditional African beliefs – there are also significant Christian and Muslim minorities.

Finally, here’s the World Bank data for Togo – with the year 2000 as a comparison. Amazing how much things can change – mostly for the better – in 15 years.

Population                                        7.30 million                 2015            4.87 million           2000

GDP                                                    $4.09 billion                 2015            $1.29 billion          2000

GDP Growth                                     5.7%                                2014             -1.6%                     2001

GNI per capita                                  $540                               2015             $300                     2000

% below poverty line                      55.1                                2015              61.7                        2006

Life expectancy at birth                 59.7 years                    2014            53.5 years              2000

Primary school enrolment*          125.1%                          2014            112.9%                    2000

*Percentage can exceed 100% due to the inclusion of over and under aged students

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Run 91 : Benin – Cotonou

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Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/

Date : 17th November, 2016

Time :  58’ 49”

Total distance run to date : 910 km

Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1458667789

Embassies in London tend to be clustered in areas such as South Kensington, Belgravia and Mayfair. In general, they’re big buildings in the most expensive parts of town. Benin’s embassy, on the other hand, is in a small office in a rundown business centre off the Edgware Rd just south of the North Circular.

It’s also different in that its logistically quite easy to get your visa (once you’ve got to the Embassy in the first place). You rock up, hand over a wad of cash and a relatively simple form, and leave 10 minutes later with your visa. Which compares favourably to the pointlessly complex forms and inconvenient drop off and pick up windows that often apply elsewhere. (I can live with paying the visa fee –as long as I think it’s actually going to the country in question – but visa paperwork drives me mad.)

While I’m waiting for my visa, I get chatting to the local Honorary Consul and remark that I haven’t met many people who’ve been to Benin. At which point he tells me that Benin has lot of UK visitors – partly because it’s the birthplace of Voodoo. Which is obviously pretty exciting.

In reading up about Benin and Voodoo, I’ve come across various different versions of the facts. Articles on the BBC website state that voodoo is the official religion of Benin – practiced by c 40% of the population. Religioustolerance.org puts the figure at 60%.Wikipedia suggests that about 17% of the population follow Vodun. Vodun being the original West African religion which was subsequently exported to the Caribbean and the Americas where it syncretized with Christianity to produce Voodoo.

Either way, Vodun isn’t the back magic, pins in dolls religion that is sometime associated with Voodoo. It centres around the vodun spirits and other elements of divine essence that govern the Earth, a hierarchy that range in power from major deities governing the forces of nature and human society to the spirits of individual streams, trees, and rocks. Adherents also emphasize ancestor worship and hold that the spirits of the dead live side by side with the world of the living, each family of spirits having its own female priesthood. There are also rituals to make contact with spirits, gain their favour by offering them animal sacrifices and gifts, and then ask for their help.

I must admit there were times in Benin when I seemed to be suffering from bad voodoo. Though, as so often in life, there were silver linings to most of the clouds.

I landed late after my mad run in Cote d’Ivoire and got to my hotel after 11pm. After a long wait at check-in, I had a much needed shower and bite before retreating to bed greatly in need of some sleep. Which wasn’t to be as, not only were the hotel walls very thin, they actually seemed to contain some form of amplifier. Which allowed me to ‘enjoy’ every decibel of my neighbour’s continuous throat clearing, mucus expectorating cough.

Lovely.

On the plus side, I was still awake when dawn broke and got out onto the roads in good time for my run. Which, given that Benin can be very humid and hot (it frequently gets into the 40s at that time of year), was probably for the best. It was a blurryface start – I was so dozy that I initially failed to set my Garmin off meaning that I ran an extra kilometre. Not ideal on a day when I had to run a second 10 km that evening.

After 11 slow and sweaty kilometres, I made it back to the hotel and realised that I must have been pretty dehydrated – I seemed to be weeing Fanta…

Luckily the effigy I’d made of my hotel neighbour had worked its magic while I was out on my run. He was gone and I was able to get a couple of hours of sleep. Which put me in a better mood as I packed up and left the hotel. I was even thinking to myself about how much better flying was in Africa – with its relatively uncrowded airports and flights that were mostly on time – compared to Europe

It was therefore inevitable that I’d arrive at the airport to be told that my flight to Togo had been cancelled. “L’avion est en panne.”

Merde!

We were told to get on the same flight the next day. An option that didn’t work for me as, by that time, I was due to have completed my stay in Togo and be on a flight to Ghana.

After an hour or so of getting nowhere with the authorities, I was starting to worry. Then the one helpful person in the airport suggested getting a car to Lome, the capital of Togo. As Benin and Togo are not only neighbours, but also both fairly small countries, this would only take about 3 hours. And he just happened to know someone – Ignace (pictured above) – who could drive me there.

I’m not normally a big fan of car journeys but this one was worth it as I saw far more of Benin than I would otherwise have done. From the roadside petrol stalls where they pour 5 litre bottle of gas into your car through a cloth – to remove the worst of the potentially engine busting gunk and impurities – to the village in the middle of the lake to the unrecognisable fish and animals being sold on the road side to the slightly sweaty border crossing where I had to pretend that my French wasn’t good enough to understand the suggestion that I make a ‘solidarity payment’, it was a memorable journey.

Ignace – thank you for the drive, for putting up with my execrable French and for the company. I can’t quite remember the lyrics of that reggae song but I know we laughed a lot!

Now for the info / data bit.

The Republic of Benin is a country in West Africa bordered by Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east, and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. A majority of the population live on its small southern coastline on the Bight of Benin in the northernmost tropical portion of the Atlantic Ocean. The capital of Benin is Porto-Novo, but the government is based in Cotonou, the country’s largest city and economic capital. Benin covers an area of 114,763 square kilometres and its population in 2015 was estimated to be approximately 10.88 million. Benin is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture, with substantial employment and income arising from subsistence farming.

The official language is French as a result of having been a French colony known as French Dahomey. In 1960, Dahomey gained full independence from France, and a tumultuous period ensued with many different governments including military coups and governments. A Marxist–Leninist state called the People’s Republic of Benin existed between 1975 and 1990. It was replaced by the current multi-party Republic of Benin in 1991.

Finally, here’s the World Bank data for Benin – with the year 2000 as a comparison. Amazing how much things can change – mostly for the better – in 15 years.

Population                       10.88 million                      2015                   6.95 million            2000

GDP                                   $8.29 billion                       2015                    $2.57 billion           2000

GDP Growth                     5.4%                                     2014                     6.3%                        2001

GNI per capita                  $840                                    2015                     $390                        2000

% below poverty line        36.2                                     2015                     37.2                        2006

Life expectancy at birth  59.5 years                           2014                   55.2 years              2000

Primary school enrolment  125.6%*                          2014                  81.2%                      2000

*Figure can be over 100% due to people over normal school age being at school

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Run 90 : Ivory Coast – Abidjan Airport

rtw-ivory-coast

Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/

Date : 16th November, 2016

Time :  59’ 18” (11’ 35” + 47’ 43”)

Total distance run to date : 900 km

Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1458667010

https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1458667765

You can’t fly directly from Senegal to Benin – you have to change flights in Abidjan.

When Luke, the ever patient travel agent, first put together my itinerary I didn’t think much about it. Just another minor inconvenience of the sort that are part and parcel of international travel.

However, as the day approached, it occurred to me that I might, if I was lucky, be able to use the stopover to get my Ivory Coast run done. However, since there was only a 90 minute window between landing and take –off, and I’d need to get through customs and security, it was going to be a very close run thing (pun intended).

The first bit went well – we landed on schedule at 18.10. However, as everyone knows, there’s a difference between when you land and when you get off a plane. (Everyone except my cab company that is, who always arrive at the time I land and then decide they need to charge me waiting time…)

The plane has to taxi to the gate. Someone has to be ready gate side to let you in. And then there’s that incredibly slow disembarkation process as passengers collect their bags and shuffle off. While muggins here, inevitably in economy, strains at his leash and watches the minutes tick by.

Its 18.25 by the time I get off the plane which, assuming I have to get on my departing flight 15 minutes before take-off, means I’ve got an hour for my run. Everything will need to go perfectly if I’m going to complete the 10 km and make my flight.

As soon as I’m off the plane, I press the relevant buttons on my Garmin to start recording time and distance – but nothing happens. I can’t get a lock on the satellite. Disaster!

Eventually, after what seems like hours, but is really only minutes, I find somewhere that the satellite can reach, start my Garmin and head off towards customs. A fast walk is the best I can do at this stage as I’ve got my flight bag and the corridor is full of people. We get to passport control. Disaster no 2. There’s a queue!

There’s simply not enough time to spend five minutes in a queue going 50 meters so I walk up and down beside the queue attracting numerous odd looks… and then laughs when I explain my behaviour to the passport officer.

Next up is security. Thankfully, there’s no queue but I do have to take my Garmin off and put it in my flight bag. Disaster no 3! Putting the Garmin in my bag has knocked something and when I retrieve it from my bag it’s no longer recording time and distance! I’ve only done 1.25 km so far and I can’t get locked back on to the satellite.

Through the retail and dining sections as fast as I can, wasting time and previous metres, until I reach the departure lounge where I can get the satellite again.

By now the maths don’t really stack up. I don’t think I can run fast enough to complete the remaining 8.75 km before my flight. At this stage, I’ve got a choice. I can either give up or keep running and hope something works out.

The second option’s not great because, if I fall short, I’ll have run 8 or 9 km for nothing. And my body really doesn’t need that.

I decide to give it a go anyway and find an end of the lounge with slightly fewer people. The only route that doesn’t disturb too many people, while allowing me to keep an eye on my bag, is a small triangle that involves running around an area of seating.

The corners are tight and it’s not made for fast running. I’m struggling to get close to 5 minutes per kilometres, let alone the 4’ 45” pace that I need by now.

The area fills up a bit and it strikes me that having a sweaty bloke continuously running in circles round you must be quite annoying. I stop to explain what I’m doing and get a load of smiles and encouragement. That makes me feel better and I set off with renewed purpose.

At 6 km they start calling my flight. By 8 km, it’s the final call. And then they’re announcing the names of the final remaining passengers.

I tell myself that its OK to keep running as long as I’m not delaying anything. In other words, I can run until the final (other) passenger makes it to the gate.

With 1 km to go, we’re down to the last 3 passengers so I sprint down to the other end of the lounge (where my gate is) and try to explain to the people at the desk what I’m doing – while running in circles as fast as I can.

2 passengers remaining and ½ km to go. Someone notices my bag dumped on a row of seats and starts to ask questions. I run over and explain that its mine. I don’t have time for unnecessary security alerts!

The final (other) passenger arrives and it’s time for one last sprint. Made it. Just.

Bathed in sweat I run  onto the plane just in time for the scheduled departure.

Only to sit there on the tarmac for half an hour while they sort out some undefined problem….Never mind. At least that’s another country ticked off. And it was unexpected so it feels particularity good !

Finally, here’s the World Bank data for Cote d’Ivoire – with the year 2000 as a comparison. Amazing how much things can change – mostly for the better – in 15 years.

Population                                        22.70 million                   2015     16.52 million     2000

GDP                                                    $31.75 billion                    2015       $10.72 billion    2000

GDP Growth                                     9.0%                                    2014       0.1%                      2001

GIN per capita                                  $1410                                  2015         $640                   2000

% below poverty line                      46.3                                     2015         38.4                       2002

Life expectancy at birth                 51.6 years                          2014         46.7                        2000

Primary school enrolment             89.6%                                 2014        74.3%                      2000

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Run 89 : Senegal – Dakar

rtw-senegal-1

Please give generously to Cancer Research : https://www.justgiving.com/Dan-Thompson11/

Date : 15th November, 2016

Time :  58’ 45”

Total distance run to date : 890 km

Run map and details : https://connect.garmin.com/modern/activity/1458666356

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one’s own back problems are endlessly fascinating. Who amongst us back sufferers could not talk on the subject for at least an hour without fear of repetition or tedium?

However, it is also a truth universally recognised that listening to other people’s back problems is less than captivating. In fact, it might fairly be said that none of us would do were it not the price we pay for having an audience for our own problems.

With this in mind, I shall attempt to be brief (which is something of a shame as I have an almost never ending supply of amusing and fascinating back stories!)

From my teens until my thirties (i.e. until very recently…) my back would go on a regular basis. This resulted in weeks in bed, much walking round doubled over and a healthy hatred of socks.

There didn’t seem to be much I could do about it except rest and submit myself to the brutal ministrations of an ex American football player called Mike who excelled at grinding his elbow into your nerve endings. (Mike, if you’re reading this, you were a godsend!)

And then I discovered Pilates, and strengthening the core, and my back problems went away. Until recently when, for some reason, they returned. Which was not a good thing I mused as I shuffled along the roadside in Dakar, Senegal’s enormous and vibrant capital.

But it’s a funny thing about running. Although it is probably the root of the seemingly endless physical problems that you have to read about it my blogs, it is also a short term cure. There’s nothing like a few kilometres of jogging to loosen up the body.

Which was just as well because, after about 6km, it was time to climb the steps to the African Renaissance Monument – the tallest statue in Africa. A monumental 49 metre high (higher than the Statue of Liberty) statue depicting a family grouping pointing to the sky and, presumably, a brighter future. In term of European points of reference, think Soviet era socialist realism (it was built by a North Korean company.)

It is commonplace to talk about these kind of monuments in developing countries in a disapproving tone because of the costs involved. And certainly you could do a lot with the reported $27 million cost t in a country like Senegal where per capita income is $1000.

To make matters worse on the cost front, there are religious elements within Senegalese society who think that the woman’s skirt is too short and has to be lengthened. (You can judge for yourself in the photo above.)

However, as a friend once pointed out to me, we’re still admiring the Colosseum, Versailles, Buckingham Palace et al – all of which were built at great expense at times when the vast majority of the European population lived in what would now be considered appalling conditions.

Whether the African Renaissance Monument will be viewed similarly in centuries to come, remains to be seen. As does the rest of Dakar, at least for me, as my attempts at sightseeing after my run were mostly scuppered by endless traffic.

What I can tell you is that there’s a long corniche with, literally, hundreds of metres of exercise equipment. And road vendors selling an extraordinary and bizarre array of not obviously useful or attractive goods.

There is also a Place de l’Independance. And more cars, trucks and taxis than there is road space. And a whole lot more besides – but that’ll have to wait for another trip because I never got there.

Finally, in a new feature for these blogs, please find below some stats about Senegal from the World Bank. If anyone gets this far, please let me know whether or not this data is helpful / interesting!

Population                                        15.13 million                      2015

GDP                                                    $13.78 billion                     2015

GDP Growth                                     6.5%                                    2015

GNI per capita                                  $1000                                  2015

% below poverty line                     46.7                                     2010

Life expectancy at birth                 66.4 years                          2014

Primary school enrolment             80.9%                                  2014

Most, if not all, these stats have improved dramatically since 2000.

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