When I set out a plan to run 4 miles in 44 countries in 4 weeks, I knew I would have short stops in many countries. Over the years I have heard, and participated in, a number of discussions regarding what the criteria should be for counting a country as having been visited - even hearing from a number of people who denounce the practice of "counting countries" all together. The most common contention is usually that you cannot count a country in which you were only in the airport. Therefore, one of my favorite definitions is that you have to purchase something outside of the airport. Fortunately, on this trip I had very specific criteria for each stop to meet...I had to run 4 miles.
Monday, May 26, 2014
Saturday, May 17, 2014
Since arriving home, my free time has been dominated by two related activities - preparing for the Homecoming Celebration and creating a presentation from my photos and video clips. Below you can watch the movie and see some photos from our celebration gathering.
Run-the-World 4 Parkinson's Disease - The Movie.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
The answer to Quiz #2 was C. See if you can figure this one out.
A. Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, Germany, Croatia, Macedonia, Finland, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Albania
B. Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Montenegro, Macedonia, Finland,Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Albania
C. Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, Slovenia, Finland, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Germany, Albania
D. Georgia, Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Croatia, Serbia, Finland, Montenegro, Macedonia, Slovenia, Albania
E. Georgia, Latvia, Estonia, Germany, Serbia, Macedonia, Finland, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Throughout my travels I have been asked many times how I chose the countries to visit. There were two major factors that influenced my itinerary, a desire to go to places that I had not been before and the cost of travel. With the majority of my flights supported by my award miles, I was somewhat dependent on creating circuitous routes within specific award regions. More than once I had someone tell me that it was unfortunate that I had scheduled a certain flight, because a more direct route between the cities existed. Linking so many flights inevitably meant that even after I was able to create a schedule to squeeze 44 countries into 4 weeks and 4 days back in October – the route would need adjustments. Factors such as airlines changing flights, not been able to secure transit visas, and not being able to get approval from the military to travel to certain countries created a domino effect on my country list. For such reasons, Ireland and Belgium were relatively late add-ons, Then at the last minute, both almost were dropped from the list.
As crazy as it sounds, Ireland was actually my replacement for Tunisia. Although a great substitution, it was an unfortunate schedule change. When I began to reach out to Parkinson’s societies in the different countries that I would be visiting, Tunisia was one of the countries that was early to respond. They quickly planned a very ambitious program for my short stay, including invitations to the Ministers of Health and Sport, a press conference, planned a running course, and offered full support during my visit. However, as a member of the US Air Force I have to get approval for all foreign travel from the Department of Defense. Although the political situation in Tunisia seems to have largely stabilized, the country was still on the off-limits list. Despite my best efforts, I could not get clearance . I do want to recognize the Association Tunsie Parkinson for their offer to host my visit in Tunis and invite everyone to read more about their organization by visiting their facebook page:
Ireland, despite not being an obvious geographic fit, was a good substitution for Tunisia because I could easily arrange connections from Sarajevo and to Morocco. However, both connections ended up having challenges. The night before I flew to Dublin, I became aware that I had a tight, 50 minute, connection in Munich AND Munich was hosting what would be the most highly anticipated soccer game of the year to date - a Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. I looked into travel options that would allow me to stay in Munich overnight, but decided it would be best to stick with my original plan to fly to Dublin. However, I had not completely convinced myself and when we were 20 minutes late leaving Sarajevo the next morning, my mind started working again. I was really conflicted. I figured that if I missed my flight due to the fact that my connecting flight arrived late - the airline would likely reroute me without a problem. So now the dilemma was should I - hurry to get off the plane, hurry to get off the airport bus, hurry to the security and passport control lines? The ultimate question came when I heard my name being paged overhead for the final boarding call - should I rush to the gate or slow down? In the end I made the flight. This was probably a good thing. It simplified my travel planning, gave me a quiet night in Dublin (most memorable for a dinner of Guinness and Guinness stew) and since Madrid dominated the game - Munich was probably not a real fun place to be that night after all.
Having made it to Ireland and lowered my level of travel stress, I almost didn’t get out on time – which obviously would have greatly raised that level of stress. I was flying out of Ireland on Ireland’s own RyanAir (although I am not sure the country wants to claim home status for the king of the budget airlines). Anyone looking for a hilarious travel related book, I recommend "RuinAir" by Paul Kilduff. RyanAir has made an art out of creating a madding set of rules that if you don’t follow them correctly, trigger huge penalty fees. I had only paid $28 for my flight from Dublin to Brussels (actually Charleroi – RyanAir’s other strategy is to fly to remote airstrips to lower costs). Given the cost, I was careful to make sure my backpack was proper size, boarding pass was printed before arriving at the airport, and I arrived early at the gate. However, as I was standing in line to board the plane I saw a small box printed on the full page boarding pass. It stated that if I was a non-EU citizen, I needed to get special stamp prior to going through security and boarding the plane. It was too late now, so I decided to play dumb. There were two agents taking the boarding passes. I was in the line with the lady who sternly told me "you don't have stamp!". When struck with the "play dumb" strategy, she looked at me as if she thought I was truly dumb and told me to stand to the side. When the man finish his line of passengers he came to help me. He was Irish and that probably explained his sympathetic, good-natured approach to my plight. He asked if I had read the box on the boarding pass. I of course said, "no" and acted puzzled as to why I was not stopped by any immigration control, but was now be prevented from leaving the country by airline personnel. Actually, that wasn't so much an act - I still don't understand why Ryan Air was prevented people from boarding the plane when they do not need a visa for the destination country. Knowing the company's mantra, this probably is a protest to some government or airport security policy. Whatever the reason the woman appeared ready to stand her ground and the man seemed to be trying to find a loophole for me. The man asked to see my visa - to which I had to reply that I don't need, and therefore don't have, a visa. The woman simply stated, "He cannot board". Fortunately the man took another approach, he waited until the woman was busy with another customer, quickly tore off my part of the boarding pass and said with Irish accent and charm, “Just be sure to do it next time”, and let me through to board the plane.
Landing in Charleroi meant taking a bus to Brussels and then train to Brussels airport. Provided my timing was prefect, I calculated that I would be able to get in a 4 mile run in the city center. However, my calculations included a few errors. First, the line to get bus tickets was about 30 people long when I arrived and that meant I would on the second, rather than the first bus to depart the airport. Second, the stop for the bus was Midi, rather than Central Station. Therefore, I would have to take 2 different trains if I want to run in the city center, before I went to the Brussels airport to catch my flight to Casablanca. With my time constraints and the recent close calls with transportation connections, I decided to play it safe. I ran a quick to 2 miles in Brussels in area of the Midi station and then I caught train to airport. Then I more than made up for this abbreviated run when I logged a bunch of extra miles in the next 2 days - some intentionally, some unintentionally.
I would like to thank our good friends, Tony and Wendy Propst, for their encouragement and generous donation to be the Country Sponsor for my stop in Ireland.
Monday, May 5, 2014
Years ago I read, or at least started to read, Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts. I remember only pieces of the history and cultural background that defines this region. It was good to experience the countries close-up, but with my brief stays I left with only small pieces of information – much like my faded memories from Balkan Ghosts.
On my arrival in Tirana, Albania I was met at the airport by Rajmonda Spirolli and her husband. Raymonda has Parkinson's and is a member of the support group in Tirana. Our contact had been arranged by Dr. Mira Rakacolli, who ironically was in the United States for the American Academy of Neurology annual meeting, while I was in Albania. However, my discussions with those with Parkinson’s and their families in Albania continually returned to activities of Dr.Rakacolli and it was clear that her patients adored here and the success of the patient support group in Albania was largely due to her involvement and dedicated leadership.
Although the 3 couples and I discussed a wide variety of topics, the one issue that our conversion seemed to to keep coming back to was the situation with medications in Albania. The group had many concerns that I had heard in other countries…the government controlled listed of reimbursable medications, question regarding access to any new medication that might be more effective, and what medications did I take. There were also other concerns about medications that I not heard or considered before. For example, the quality of medications available through the government reimbursed payment or private purchase. The group was well versed in the sources of medications - Turkey, Italy, India, etc. One gentleman stated that he pays the equivalent of $150 of his $250 per month pension to purchase medication for his Parkinson’s. The insight that I gained into this issue in Albania, highlights the experience I have had and the things I have learned by meeting with those with Parkinson’s in so many countries around the world.
After meeting, I had a late night run and got some beautiful views of the city center in the night light.
The travel from Tirana, Albania to Podgorica, Montenegro is not what you would expect between two neighboring capitals. I am not sure if the lack of a direct bus route is due to political reasons or lack of an economic incentive, but I had read that the best way to travel between the cities was to take a bus to Shkodra (a town near the border) and then find taxis/minibuses to cover the rest of the distance. During my stay in Tirana, I received 3 different sets of instructions from those at the hotel reception desk on how to find a bus to Shkodra from Tirana. The last man appeared to have the most up-to-date information, telling me that “there have been problems” – presumable traffic accidents - and apparently a new bus location was being used to try to stop the unofficial minivan use. After a 20-30 minute walk and a few questions along the way to ensure I continuing in the proper direction, I found a traffic circle and on one side a group of buses were lined up. Outside one of the buses a young guy was shouting something that sounded like Shkodra and using fingers, he was able to inform me that the bus would be leaving in an hour. The bus ride itself turned out to be most interesting for the cast of locals waiting along the side of the road and continuously hopping and off the bus, which presumably added to the bus's profit margin and gave the ride more of a local bus feel.
Getting from Skodra to Podgorica was supposed to be the more difficult part of the journey. The websites and guidebooks I read suggested the trip would most likely require 2 taxis. One to get the border, in which case there would be plenty to chose from in Skodra, and one to get from the border to Podgorica, which could be harder to come by. When I got off the bus in Shkodra, there were certain plenty of taxis to chose from and most that approached me were offering rides to Podgorica, so I was feeling a little better about my options at that time. Surprising the options for food were less common. I stopped half a dozen bars/cafes in the square – all of which only offered drinks. I finally found a small place that I hesitantly entered - joining the one other customer and the 6 other adults and children who seemed to be a family somehow related to the restaurant staff. In one young man left the group to be my waiter. He spoke excellent English, so after he brought my food I asked him if he knew about taxis going to Podgorica. He said “You want taxi to Podgorica?...okay, I find out.” A few minutes later he offered a price that matched the prices I had read in other online posts and soon I was on my way in a taxi driven by another young man. My chance-meeting taxi driver had finished a post-graduate degree to teach English and was waiting to get word on the American “ visa lottery” in the next couple weeks. The houses in the region explained the reason for his desire to obtain the visa. When I asked him about these houses, which seemed to be quite nice compared to many that I had seen back in Tirana, he explained that most most were built by Albanians that has immigrated to the US and now had plans to return after retiring. If the driver failed in to secure an American visa, he said he would be hoping to get a government job – which he stated would pay twice the salary of private jobs – but were awarded largely based on political party status rather than ability.
As we neared and crossed the border – and my driver began to let down his guard – I was to see a little more if the underlying ethic tension that I had heard a little about in Macedonia. At first there were explanations about the warfare tactics the Albanians had used over the years, given the mountains in the area - then talk of lost control of lands – then claims of mistreatment. At the border crossing, the driver was visibly angered by what he felt was unfair treatment and questioning by the border officials. Once inside Montenegro there were continued comments hinting of resentment – culminating in the statement “actually I hate these people – if I had something in my hand I would kill them all….it is true.” One can sense the passion in the statement and reading of the history, understand that is based on years of conflict. However, it would be hard to comprehend by simply looking at the land. Although we drove across a small border check point - the lake and the mountains on either side of the checkpoint didn’t change. Because my curiosity was peaked, I asked my driver how one can recognize the different ethic groups – was it physical characteristics, behaviors or language and he let me know, “It is easy. We are more ruder. No it is true, we like to fight.”
My time in Podgorica was brief, just as was my time in Tirana. However, my impression matched the things that I had read previously – there were a few interesting things to see in these capital cities, but the more beautiful places in the countries were in some the smaller historic towns. Podgorica was surrounded by incredible natural beauty in the form of river and mountains, but the city construction seemed to struggle to match or enhance the natural surroundings.
One of the most distracting features of all the cities I visited in the Balkans was the amount of graffiti. It was everywhere. Often it was difficult to get a good photo without having some graffiti included. Even when you looked at the most beautiful buildings, when you looked closer you often would see graffiti.
After the short flight from Podgorica to Sarajevo, I felt like I was meeting Tirana and Podgorica’s big brother. Although a large city with more historical buildings and a larger city center, many of the same features were present. As with the other cities, while one area might have a stunning sight – the next block could be visually disappointing.
In all fairness, given the history of conflicts - include their recent past, it is maybe not surprising that these cities lack a consistent physical character. Sarajevo is a vivid reminder of the impact of war in the region, with it’s multiple memorials to the suffering during the siege from 1992-1996.
My last few minutes in Sarajevo brought a new sense of reality to all the memorials that I had seen the day prior. Throughout my short time in the city, I noticed many areas where the major of the buildings were like the one in the photo below - covered with bullet holes in differing stages of repair. However, on my way to the airport we hit a traffic jam and my taxi driver decied to take a little detour off the main road. I saw a large abandoned building that had extensive damage which I assume was from the war. The taxi driver seemed to sense my curiosity... "front line" he said. He then pointed to one side of the street and said "Bosnia army" and pointing to the other side of the street and said, "Serbia army". After that he stated, "Sorry, little English". But seeing the other homes in the area with far more bullet holes than the ones I had seen previous in the city - I am not sure there was much else he needed to tell me.
After so many periods of suffering, hopefully the people of this region will be able to live in peace and increasing tolerance and cooperatively work to address the need of all citizens, including those affected by Parkinson's.
Saturday, May 3, 2014
As a child I always dreamed of being a professional athlete. As I have introduced my background during talks I have given along my journey, I have used this slide to demonstrate my childhood dreams.
As a child my play was centered around sports. If I was playing with friends or cousins, I was always happiest when playing sports. Even my time alone was spent in imaginary contests. Although I probably spend time imagining myself in every major sport, my real fascination was with the Olympics. As a child I would get exited every 4 years when the Olympics would come around, though media/television coverage was limited in my small town in Montana at that time. I still remember at 8 years-old creating a scrapbook by cutting out every newspaper photo from the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Durring the World Parkinson Congress last year, I was able to visit the site of this memory.
To this day I still have a difficult time watching the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympic games, because of a silly sense of regret that hits me when I see the athletes enter the stadium. To compensate, I have tried to visit as many Olympic stadiums as possible over the years. On this trip alone, I have been to former Olympic stadiums in Beijing, Tokyo, Melbourne and Helsinki. And by the end will have touched down in former Winter Olympic host cities, Sarajevo and Oslo,
(If anyone is still wondering…this is my first glimpse of the stadium used for 1956 Olympics in Melbourne)
When I heard the that the Parkinson’s support group in Sovenia had invited Olympic athletes to the event in Ljubljana, I have to admit – I was a bit giddy. Even more excited when I found out that Vesna Fabjan (on the far left in both photos below), a three-time Olympic and medalist in cross-country skiing, would be attending.
In fact the entire event was a testimony to the outstanding organizational structure and commitment of its members. They are divided into five regional offices and provide tremendous support to those affected by Parkinson’s in Slovenia. One of the programs that impressed me most is the 4 day camp that they run twice a year that provides an overview of Parkinson’s to those newly diagnosed patients and their families. They definitely have an organizational format and list of programs/services that could serve as a model for others.
My short stay in Ljubljana turned out to even exceed my high expectations. From the time I arrived in Tivoli Park to find a handful of volunteers setting up, to the time Parkinson’s patients and families arrived by bus, to the time we started to run – the morning was more than I could have ever hoped for.
During the run, I had the real pleasure to talk to Vesna and hear first-hand what it is like to train for the Olympics, feel the pressure to perform, feel the joy of winning a medal and experience life in the Olympic village.
Whenever people thank me for visiting on this journey around the world, I try to let them know that I am sure that I am getting far more out of this than anyone else. In Slovenia, that was particularly true. I want to say, “Thank You!!” to all that made this event possible, with special thanks to the members of Trepetlika for the hard work and planning. In addition to making this event possible, they work everyday to improve the lives of those with Parkinson’s and for that they deserve all the thanks in the world.