Posts Tagged With: documentaries

Digging a Hole To China

I’m surprised Colin Angus didn’t succeed in digging a hole to China when he was a kid, because the guy is an unstoppable force. And if it were possible to find China in a sandbox, he would have done it. A few times.

Angus has defied death more than once, voluntarily putting himself in situations that test not only the human spirit, but survival itself. In 1999, Angus, South African Scott Borthwick and Australian Ben Kozel decided to take on the world’s most dangerous white water. After hiking 200 km from the Pacific Ocean to the South American Continental Divide, the team located the trickling source of the Amazon and followed it 7,200 km to the Atlantic in a rubber raft. They did it in five months with little fanfare at the end of such an epic challenge. In his book  Amazon Extreme, Angus recounts dodging bullets  spit off by the Sendero Lumineso, a left wing terrorist group in Peru as they paddled through the “Red Zone.” The gunfire was the least of their worries considering they lost all their cooking equipment when the raft turtled early in the trip. Documentary film footage shows Angus expertly using a broken shovel blade as a frying pan to cook the rice and dried beans that were their vital (and only)food source for the trip. 

hollywoodOn Monday, Colin Angus and his wife, Julie (nee Wafaei), joint recipients of the 2007 National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year  award, were at the Hollywood Theater in Vancouver to promote their upcoming Tribal Journey. The Nisga’a Tribe has invited the couple to join them on a 220 km journey from North Vancouver to Squamish this July. For Julie, the first woman to row unsupported across the Atlantic from mainland to mainland, 220 km has to be a stroll in the park. A short float in a boat.

Fittingly, Colin and Julie met at a public transit bus stop in 2003. I suppose they agreed that time was being wasted waiting for buses as the lean and driven couple decided to take on the world—propelling themselves by human power alone just one year later.

Colin Angus squeezed in a mini-trip before this, deciding to conquer the fifth longest river in the world and navigate its entirety, simply because no one else had. He convinced his fellow Amazon paddler, Ben Kozel and a documentary filmmaker from Vancouver, Remy Quinter, to join him on his next voyage. Lost in Mongolia, Colin’s second book, chronicles the harrowing float from Mongolia, north to Siberia and onward to the Arctic Ocean. It quickly becomes a desperate page turner, pulling readers chapter to chapter to find out if everyone survives. The grittiest bits of the book unfold when Colin becomes separated from Remy and Ben.  When their raft overturns in the violent waters of a flash flood, Colin attempts to retrieve a lost bag of film. Colin is swept away with the current as well. His effort is in vain and when he pulls up on shore, he is left waiting. And waiting. For 12 days, with no shirt, no shoes (and no service!), no passport, food rations or clean drinking water—Colin succumbs to a delirious state with few options or answers. Did Ben and Remy pass by him already? Was there a split in the channel that he didn’t  see?  Colin opted to continue on, alone, hoping his teammates were waiting for him in Hutag, a village 100 km downstream. Concerned nomads nourished him with yak’s milk tea and horsemeat after finding him nearly skeletal and spent.

(Colin wrote about this unexpected separation and the havoc it wreaked on his mental state in magnetic detail for Explore magazine; the article appears on the Angus Adventures site–

placardIt was in June 2004 that Colin took on the world. He began the unfathomable odyssey with journalist Tim Harvey, but ended it with his then fiancée, Julie. Before reaching Moscow, Harvey and Angus were butting heads, and much of their fiery clash is documented (from Colin’s perspective) in Beyond the Horizon. Harvey found his own way around the world, choosing to travel through Africa and South America before his return.  He joined Angus from Vancouver to Alaska and across the angry Bering Sea to the unwelcoming embrace of the dark Siberian winter where they rode bikes across the frozen tundra to Moscow. A wind chill of -30 was considered a pleasant day.  Julie arrived for the last and critical leg from Moscow to Lisbon by bike, followed by four months at sea, crossing the unfriendly Atlantic (over 10,000 km). But they didn’t stop there. Colin and Julie biked from Costa Rica to Vancouver, bringing Colin’s adventure to a close after a jaw-dropping 43,000 km. The first human-powered circumnavigation of the world title belonged to Colin Angus. Rowing across two oceans and trekking through 17 countries and surviving every possible mishap, starvation, hallucination-inducing thirst, altitude sickness, trench foot, a urethra stricture that required surgery and a slight case of cabin fever.

So, how do you pack for two years, for the landscapes that will take you from temperatures of bone-shattering -50 to a blistering heat of +40? In part, they packed 4,000 chocolate bars, 72 bike inner tubes, 250 kg dried food, 31 dorado fish and 80 kg of clothing from bikinis to ski gear. And somehow, in the middle of Atlantic, between storm fronts, Colin managed to make birthday pancakes for Julie with strawberry jam and whipped cream.

The documentary Beyond the Horizon left me slightly claustrophobic even in the great dimensions of the Hollywood Theater. Colin and Julie spent four months in a specially designed row boat in a cabin that appeared to be smaller than a public washroom stall. Due to the close quarters of their cabin, they actually fashioned protective head gear out of stuffed nylons to prevent head injury from the turbulent storm waters.  There were relentless hurricanes that created swells reminiscent of The Perfect Storm—which didn’t instill as much fear as Julie expressed when they were nearly clipped by a freighter ship due to their diminutive size, bobbing about in the Atlantic unseen.

Colin apologized at the beginning of the double-screening of Amazon Extreme and Beyond the Horizon for the amateur camera work, but the sometimes shaky camera and dialogue (that often gets blown away with the high winds  found at 18,000 feet elevation in the Andes) created two documentaries with a focus on the emotions and energy of the teams–not the budget. I was glad to finally have the visuals to accompany the  books I have read with white- knuckled anxiety over the years.

And there’s more. Julie has published her own account of the Atlantic exploit in Rowboat in a Hurricane. Written with a female spin and the mind of a microbiology grad, her book should prove to be as compelling as her counterpart’s. 

And still more…. in September 2008, Colin and Julie traced their ancestral roots and rowed from northern Scotland to Syria. This was a mere 7,000 km, seven month trip through an interconnected route of canals and roads (where they pulled out  bikes from their amphibious vessels) across 13 countries. Rowed Trip, a book they co-wrote is to be released this fall.

And I thought my two and a half hour commute into Vancouver to see the documentaries was epic—4km on foot, 70km on Greyhound (with a sketchy seat mate), Skytrain, public transit bus and on foot again to the theater on West Broadway with a buttery spinach pie and hockey puck of honey halva in my hand from the Greek bakery.

The question is, how will Colin and Julie keep topping themselves? I can imagine their morning conversation over just-picked dandelion tea in Victoria.

Colin—“What should we do today, honey?”
Julie—“I dunno. How ‘bout we bike to Winnipeg for dinner?”

Colin—“There’s that place in Portland we’ve talked about, you know, with the all-you-can-eat soft-shelled crab on Friday nights?”

Julie—“Okay, but only if we can row back on the Pacific, I’ve got yoga at noon tomorrow with Jamie.”

Really, I can’t imagine them sitting in for a quiet night of take-out pizza and a movie. How sloth-like.  How unadventurous.

Prepare to be stunned by the inspirational stories of Colin and his wiry match, Julie.  The obstacles they battle head-on showcases their raw courage, titanium nerves and enviable determination.

Reading about the vicious tropical storms, being lost, lurking crocodiles, cracked and bleeding lips, Siberian snow hitting bare skin like knives—all of this will take away your right to ever complain again.

And their message to the audience?

Ride a bike. Not necessarily 7,000 km, but at least to the bloody corner store.

cropped angusFor inspiration visit–

For more about Tribal Journeys: woman

Categories: Flicks and Muzak, On My Bookshelf | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gin Confessions, Tip Taps and How to Make Your Life’s Documentary

October 20, 2008
Gin is the perfect stimulant for late night confessions. In fact, it wasn’t even that late, but the gin was warm in our heads as we sat on the veranda of the Kaniyo-Pabidi Eco-Tourist lodge in the Budongo Forest. We had covered Obama, chimp sex (in graphic detail) and Brian’s travels as a freelance documentary film producer from the Arctic to Guatemala. Crickets were trying to outdo each other with volume levels, and a hyrax (a strange guniea pig/groundhog cross) was screaming like a damsel in distress from the dark depths of the forest.
Jacques,the Roots & Shoots program coordinator at the Jane Goodall Institute, admitted she needed to cut back on her coffee and Coca-Cola addictions. She was confident that she could kick the habit, after all, she had stopped eating clay four years ago. Clay? Her eyes glazed over as she reminisced about the fights she had with her sister over the termite hill close to their home. This was where she found the freshest, finest, powdery clay to eat. Clay? I had heard of pica—a medical disorder where individuals crave coal, soil, chalk, glass and soap. It’s most commonly seen with autism, brain injured children, epileptics and some pregnant women (when dill pickles and dulce de leche Haagen Dazs just aren’t cutting it). Pica cravings also include paint chips, burnt match heads, cornstarch, coffee grounds and buttons. Everyone loves a good button now and again!
The clay confession had me on a Google search as soon as we reached an Internet café in Masindi. I simply typed in “people who eat clay” and discovered that Jacques and her sister fighting over a termite hill was commonplace in places like Africa and the southern United States, and that the clay fetish was better known as “geophagy.” Apparently clay and chalk provide a slam-dunk source of zinc, sulphur, potassium, magnesium, copper and calcium. In some places vendors actually sell earth for consumption. Aboriginals in California and Peru ate earth with acorns and potatoes to help neutralize harmful akaloids (I would choose a syrah with nice legs).Even Italians in Sardinia were incorporating it into their loaves of freshly baked acorn bread.
Mary Lou, who manages the Budongo lodge, told me that pregnant women in the local village often lick the walls of their mud homes. It suddenly seems odd that in North America we moan about our cravings for lime Tostitos, Big Macs with salty fries, butter-saturated movie theatre popcorn and sticky chicken wings at the pub. I wonder if I can create a dirt wave of popularity when I return home? Why haven’t the protein bar makers capitalized on this? Clif bars could reach a whole new market with a Clif Dirt bar. Really, who would want unoriginal flavours like carrot cake and oatmeal raisin when you could bite into genuine African Rift Valley earth?
Naturally, Jacques had to endure our non-stop clay comments for the rest of the week as we would muse over a breakfast of banana muffins and granola, “these muffins are good, but, if they had a little clay in them…”
I seized the opportunity to return to the Budongo Forest (and lodge with the best hot rainwater showers) with Jacques and Brian Knappenberger who was filming a piece for the Discovery Channel on “Eco-Heroes.” A teacher in the Masindi District had created quite a stir when he introduced the concept of the “tiptap” to his school and community after seeing a similar practice in another part of Uganda. The tiptap is a hands-free hand-washing system that is constructed from two sticks, a jerry can and rope. In this area, typhoid, cholera and malaria are rampant, and sanitation is an ever-present issue. At St. Mary’s Biisu Primary School where we would be filming, the “toilets” were pit latrines, which are holes in the ground that you squat and hover over. Toilet paper? Hah, such a luxury. There’s not even enough paper for the kids to do schoolwork assignments. The stench of urine from boys still practicing their aim is the kind that doubles you over.
At St. Mary’s, many of the children walk 5km (one way) to school. They suck on sugarcane for lunch (if anything), or, if they do go home on their lunch break, they often don’t come back. This school of six grades has 688 enrolled students. The classrooms are dark and tired with graffiti on the walls and beat-up desks. There are no text books, no colourful maps of the world, no posters reminding kids of hot dog day on Friday. At recess (which they seem to be on all day), 75 kids chase after a soccer ball made of knotted up banana fiber. There are no swings or hop-scotch or basketball nets. At one point I watch about 20 kids cutting swaths of grass with machetes under a teacher’s supervision.Visiting this school makes me want to tour Canada and visit every elementary school with photos to tell any little unappreciative buggers how good they have it. I watch as barefoot kids line up to drink from a rain barrel with a communal plastic cup. The tiptap is a step forward, but 688 kids sharing the same cup is about five steps back.
Brian interviews five of the most outspoken kids, while a hundred others stand on their tiptoes trying to peer into the classroom windows to see what the mizungos with cameras are doing. Brian and I are like zoo animals. When I step outside the classroom I am stared at by 600 blank eyes, unsure what to make of me and my tattoos. I laugh now thinking of the job interview I had at the Fairmont Royal York where I shared my profound moment of volunteering in the jungles of Costa Rica for three months. I said to Heidi, the health club manager, “the kids in this Alto Cuen village had never seen a person with blue hair and blonde eyes.” Remarkably, I landed the job, despite my blue hair faux pas. However, in the middle of this village, the experience was identical, and I really did feel like my hair was blue and my eyes were blonde! By day’s end, the kids had warmed to us and stampeded Brian (or took off in terror, it was a mixed reaction), whenever he lifted his camera lens.
I am curious to see how Brian will refine three full days of filming into three minutes. But, I suppose this is what we do in life. The places and faces that we meet are constantly condensed into an cell phone call, email, a photograph or a postcard. We live for 80 years (if we are so lucky) and can really only take the very best moments with us. The golden stories that we repeat, those shiver moments (Oprah has aha! moments, I have shiver moments –where the emotional and physical thrill of the moment makes your blood as fizzy as shook-up champagne, and goosepimples race across your skin like fast-moving snakes).
I have four distinct shiver moments that I can instantly define — where I was standing, the smells in my nose, and the pounding of my heart in my ribcage can’t be forgotten. You know that feeling, when you are so stunned with what you see and feel that your eyes burn with hot tears? I was 18 and standing on the dusty logging road of Clayoquot Sound when the logging trucks started their slow grind towards the protesters, headlights and shadows like ghosts in heavy blanket of dark before dawn. Walking into the Monteverde Cloud forest in Costa Rica, toucans shrill above my head as I left the world I knew and stepped into the dripping green of a humming rainforest for the first time. Flying 1,000 km west into the Pacific to touch down on the Galapagos Islands, the place I had dreamed of since I was six: blue-footed boobies, frigate birds, barking seals and tortoises as big as coffee tables. And then, the first scream and pant-hoot of a chimp community, their voices ringing in my ears, the thumping of a chimp as he pounds on an ironwood tree and the canopies above my head swaying with chimpanzees. Their smell, so primal and distinct will stay with me forever.
Africa is certainly taking up a lot of my life’s documentary minutes and I’m okay with that. I haven’t even mentioned the sugarcane fields and the expanse of the Rift Valley that stretches so far my eyes strain to see the other side of the world. Have I described the bruised sky at night with fine veins of lightning splitting the atmosphere between the heavens and earth? Or, hearing the sound of Puvel’s illadopses, a tiny bird that is only found in the Budongo forest? For some birders, the illadopses is their pinnacle. This is their life’s documentary coming to a tidy, satisfied close.
As I let Africa rub its way into deep into my skin, I feel a raw ache for those I wish I could share these moments with. As we drove through the sugarcane fields to Masindi, I imagined my grandfather, his soiled hat tipped to the side, hand on his tired hip as he looked out at the crop. He would talk to the farmer about fertilizers, the desperate need for rain that year, the soil. The life of a farmer is universal, a tug-of-war toil with the weather with years that offer reassurance, and seasons that end in disappointment. My grandmother would love the birds, the brilliant bee-eaters and sunbirds. She would marvel at the spider lilies and sausage trees. I will show her my Africa in photos when I return, but, if only for a day she could walk beside me.
My mother should be here, drinking a warm beer on the verandah overlooking Lake Victoria. She would have binoculars permanently trained on the treetops for colobus and vervet monkeys… and we’d send my dad to the Entebbe Golf Club.
My sister Kiley will see Africa, because she has the incessant travel bugs that bite away at me too. I hope my brother does. I know Dax all too well, he would be up early, drinking black coffee outside and then quietly sneaking off to paddle a kayak around the lake alone. He would come back as the sun was going down, ravenous and exploding with stories.
Wanda will arrive in December to share this world with me, and this brings me comfort. I think of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild (spoiler here) about 22-year-old Christopher McCandless bravely deciding to walk into the woods of Alaska, away from civilization and the ills of society. He survived a harsh winter of solitude in the North, but realized as he was dying of starvation that “Happiness is best shared.” He carved his last tragic words into the permanency of wood with his knife.
And this is the responsibility I have, to share. Go out and create the documentary that will leave you sitting in the audience (because you are the audience) stunned with what you have seen and done with your life.
Artwork by Tuguinie Sharon whose work will appear in the book The Tribes and Totems of Uganda, the project I have been working on inbetween chimp treks and eating termites.
Categories: Eat This, Sip That, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moral Complacency

Irshad Manji, the fiery feminist identified by the NY Times to be “Osama bin Laden’s worst nightmare,” gently accused her Abbotsford audience of slipping into “moral complacency.” Manji recently wrote The Trouble With Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call For Reform In Her Faith.

africa-kidsHer website offers free downloads in several translations for readers who may be living in an area where the book is banned or censored. Her pride was palpable when she announced that her book had been downloaded over a million times. A million!

Manji was part of the Canadian Voices speaker series presented by the Abbotsford Collegiate International Baccalaureate Program. Heavy vocal hitters in the past year included Peter Mansbridge (CBC’s Chief Correspondent and anchor of The National), Dr. James Orbinski (former President of Medecins Sans Frontieres), Stephen Lewis (Deputy Director of Unicef, Special Envoy for AIDS/HIV in Africa) and Roberta Bondar (first female astronaut and neurologist in space). The speaker series has provided a dynamic forum of empowerment, questioning and insight into individuals who have  created a global impact.

I think Irshad Manji was bang-on with her complacency dig. My moral laziness was emphasized when I went to see the documentary Chasing Rain (produced and directed by Dax Xenis) three days after being slammed by Manji for a bit of Islamophobia and not asking pertinent questions out loud. In a unique parallel, Chasing Rain was filmed in Uganda—Manji’s family was a refugee of Idi Amin’s Uganda. In 1972 Amin declared an “economic war” that included the expropriation of properties owned by Asians and Europeans. An estimated 80,000 Asians were explused from Uganda, and Manji’s family found a new home in Vancouver, BC.

Chasing Rain documented an ambitious project backed by Grassroots Assistance in Rural Development (GARD). It involved the construction of a 6,000 litre water storage tank in Adakingo, Lira, Uganda. The project quickly became a monster of exasperation with brief moments of exhiliration. Like Manji’s red-hot poker words of accusation, watching Chasing Rain was like being in the boxing ring with guilt. I thought of the shower I had before going to see it—hot enough to boil 50 lobsters, and long enough to have provided clean drinking water for over at least 100 Africans.

The project was initiated by Jeff Owen, a geologist who identified a need for better water sources while working on biosand filter projects in undeveloped countries. The large-scale rain catchment system he planned began with a few gross miscalculations. Owen guessed it would take 30 men one day to clear the dirt from the proposed area. It took three and a half months.

The North American standards for clean drinking water and sanitary living conditions quickly became evident and the connection between water and health was obvious. Canadian GARD volunteers found themselves knocked flat on their backs with diarrhea that kept them permanently on the squat toilets that they initially hoped to avoid.

Camera man Dax Xenis panned the area where villagers collected water for consumption in jerry cans. The pond was the equivalent of Habitant pea soup–murky sludge that even my dog would turn his nose up at. The locals walked for over an hour at times to this source of water, children often bearing the weight of awkward plastic jerry cans on their heads.


And we reward ourselves in Canada for surving Earth Hour, a whole hour without electricity! An hour without water, I bet we could do that too—but a lifetime? UNICEF estimates that there are 125 million children under the age of five without access to clean drinking water. I thought I got the short stick because my mother wouldn’t buy chocolate milk every week.

When I landed at the airport in Entebbe, Uganda last September, the power went off three times as baggage was loaded on the carousel. In my four months in Africa, not having electricity became more common than having it. What became evident was how big my sasquatch carbon footprint in Canada was (especially after flying for 19 hours, leaving my footprints permanently in the atmosphere from Vancouver to Amsterdam to Entebbe). I blushed with shame over my pre-Africa tanning bed sessions with the 280 watt bulbs that could have powered all of Entebbe for a month.

My footprint sunk even deeper into the quagmire with all the plastic bottles of water I drank in Uganda. I responsibly attempted to balance this number with recyclable glass bottles of beer.

But now what? How do I shift from moral and earthly complacency? As I unpacked groceries this afternoon (from earth-suffocating plastic bags because AGAIN I forgot the reuseable cloth ones), I became painfully aware of my 100,000-mile diet. Rosenburg blue cheese from DENMARK, bananas from ECUADOR, an avocado from MEXICO. Those little stickers on the fruit and vegetables further cemented my laziness. But can life be lived without bananas?

My actions are a see-saw. I walk  to work but I eat Ecuadorian bananas. I compost and recycle but buy wine from Australia. I will grow my own herbs this summer but I like hot baths that cover my kneecaps.

Awareness, it’s the fertilizer for growth, a therapeutic massage of my morals. What I do know is that there are bigger and better things to be done in this world, one banana at a time.

Categories: Flicks and Muzak, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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