Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Aftermath of the Tour of Rwanda

The Tour of Rwanda ended a week ago tomorrow.  If you're not a follower of Team Rwanda to bring you up to speed...we won...BIG.  We took first, second and third in the General Classification.  We won three stages and took home the top team.  It doesn't get much better than this.  We did what we came to do.

I'm not sure if it's due to the drama the week preceding the Tour of Rwanda, the chaos of the event itself, the crashes, the sickness, the aggressiveness of the crowds, the three stolen iPhones, the one stolen pair of Oakleys off Jeremy's face after the final stage, but I have struggled with why is a sense of joy and celebration completely void in my world.  There is simply nothing....

I am proud of our staff and coaches who led these young men to victory.  I am proud of the boys themselves who pulled together after walking out on strike a week before the race.  I never thought we would do what we did.

Why then do I still feel...empty?

Throughout the entire tour I was praying we could simply keep it together.  I had no idea whether the team was still a team, we didn't have one 8 days before the event.  It was the proverbial wait for the second shoe to fall.  It didn't.  

We also had always finished with our complete teams.  This year we didn't.  Ephrem ended up in a crash on Stage 2 which caused yet another concussion, his second in two months.  He raced another 3 stages before being pulled by the race doctor.  

Valens collapsed after Stage 5, 166kms from Musanze to Nyanza.  In the race Valens came to our car and said, "Coach, I am not okay, no power."  Sterling just told him to hang in there.  In a show of solidarity his teammates, Bonaventure, Janvier and another Team Rwanda Karisimbi cyclist all gave Valens a much need hand to the back, a slight push, to keep him with the peloton.  In the end Janvier and Valens were both fined 20 seconds for the push.  We didn't care, that's just what these guys did to help their ailing teammate.  Unfortunately, Valens passed out for over 20 minutes at the finish and although he recuperated over the next couple of days, his Tour of Rwanda was over.  The 2014 Tour of Rwanda champion was finished.

On Stage 6 from Muhanga to Gisenyi, a very controversial crash happened only 800meters from the finish taking out Patrick and Joseph Areruya.  We heard it come over the radio.  Luckily it was in the 3km rule so as long as they both finished they would be awarded the same time as the group they were in.  When we got to the scene of the crash, Joseph was already gone, Patrick, however, was on the sidewalk with the doctors already attending to his gaping wound on his head.  Patrick was sitting 4th in the GC.  He just needed to finish and he would retain his time and position.  And so he did....

As the week went on, the pressure built as we had held the yellow jersey since Bosco's record breaking Prologue win on Sunday.  Finally, on Stage 7, Bosco sealed the win by riding away on the rain soaked cobbles of Kigali.  Stage 8, the final stage, simply became a formality.

And then...on a rain soaked Sunday in Kigali, around a 10 lap 12kms circuit, Team Rwanda won...again.

At the finish all the staff worked to protect the riders and the bikes from a crowd that had simply gone mad with enthusiasm.  Frankly, it was scary.  There was no Team Rwanda staff at the protocol to celebrate the win as they were all trying to find riders and bikes and keep the crowds at bay.  The Rwandans all celebrated and we collected transponders, found bikes, escorted riders to a waiting car....we did our job.  

And then that was it....

In the end I wondered why had no one even taken the time to simply say thank you.  I struggled with that immensely.  I know this is my job and I don't do it for anyone other than, in the end, the riders, but nothing...

And then today, Mr. AM read me this from Oswald Chambers:

We have a tendency to look for wonder in our experience, and we mistake heroic actions for real heroes. It’s one thing to go through a crisis grandly, yet quite another to go through every day glorifying God when there is no witness, no limelight, and no one paying even the remotest attention to us. If we are not looking for halos, we at least want something that will make people say, “What a wonderful man of prayer he is!” or, “What a great woman of devotion she is!” If you are properly devoted to the Lord Jesus, you have reached the lofty height where no one would ever notice you personally. All that is noticed is the power of God coming through you all the time.

And on Monday we start camp again....

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Concrete Falling on the Casket

A little over two weeks ago I stood in a cemetery in Rwanda, the light drizzle slowly becoming a steady rain, and I watch as a small community of Rwandans buried a cyclist.  His name was Yves Iryamukuru.

As I walked through the family's house at the viewing, his mother was wailing, "It's not's not him" as they opened the top of the casket, a window into the world of the already gone. It wasn't him. He was gone.

A 22 year old young Rwandan man with hopes of being on Team Rwanda killed in a local race just kilometers from the finish.

I wasn't at the finish. I heard about it hours later. Why did no one call me to tell me? Janvier came upon him after he had hit the bus. I cannot imagine what he saw. We still have not talked about it.

I did not know Yves personally, but his loss still darkens every corner of my existence.

In the misty cemetery all I can hear is the sound of the concrete hitting the coffin. A loud slushy thud on the white wooden casket. A young girl looking up at me in the rain. I cannot see the grave, I am several levels removed. The girl and her friend are trying to open a lollipop. the shovels bury this rider....I look down at the girls and smile. Did they know Yves? They are ready to toss the wrapper on the ground. I hold out my hand....thud...thud...I take the wrapper and smile. They call up Team Rwanda to lay the wreath on the grave. I walk to the front and lay the wreath on the freshly laid concrete stepping my black cowboy boot onto the grave. I am lost.

On Sunday afternoon he's racing to be known by Team Rwanda, by Monday evening he's under concrete.

And we keep going.....

Two weeks later my "family" of riders walks out of camp.

14 riders go on strike a week before the Tour of Rwanda.

My family walks out on a rainy Friday night....very similar to the night we stood in the cemetery.

The why is not important, the details irrelevant.

They were gone. I didn't care about the race, the bikes, the preparation. I just wanted them to still have a future.

After days of back and forth, people making demands on both sides, people simply letting them vent with no guidance. I did what a mother would do.

Monday morning I woke up, grabbed a coffee and looked at Mr. AM and said, "We need to try one more time. I dreamt about it this morning and if I don't see the team, talk to them and encourage them to come back I will know I didn't do everything I needed to do. If they don't come back, they don't, but they will know I love them anyway."

An hour later we were on the motorcycle on the way to Sashwara. We stopped about a kilometer from the town and Mr. AM made a few phone calls and when he hung up I said to him, "Let me do the talking. There's simply too much "male" in this group. I just need you and Felix to translate for me."

As we pulled into a parking lot in Sashwara I saw Bona. He was standing alone. I jumped off the motorcycle and walked straight toward him. He just stood there. I stood right in front of him and then put my arms around him and said, "I love you. You are like a son to me and I will love you no matter what happens. If you stay on strike or you come back, I will ALWAYS ALWAYS love you. That will never change."

And then Mr. AM and Felix rounded up most of the rest and I knelt down and told each of them the same thing. I told them how I needed to hear from each one individually.

And some of them came home....and then the rest.

Like a family we came back together, resolved our issues, forgave and came out the other side much better people and a much stronger team.

Everyone had ideas and thoughts about everything going on around the riders, pleading, meeting with them, sympathizing, commiserating. In the end, while I was hugging one of the rider's mothers as we were picking up her son to bring back to the center, I knew...only a "mother" who loved unconditionally but still held them accountable could have moved the needle.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Blessed be the Bona Moments

There are events happening every day, things which I face in my 42 prior years I never had to really work through.  I have said many times, life in the US is like a small wavy line going across the screen, some ups, some downs, and with the exception of a major tragedy or death to a family or close friend, relatively pretty smooth.  Life in Rwanda, working with the cyclists and their families, with governments in not only Rwanda but also Ethiopia and Eritrea is akin to a heart beat, a quick spike up, then down, a bounce and repeat sometimes these ups and downs coming more rapidly, depending on the heart rate.

If I let my emotions (besides the anger emotion) bubble to the surface every day I would without a doubt have a good cry daily.  I call them my “All Righty Then” moments.  When I say “All Righty Then”, it is something that grabs my heart and soul from body, rips it out and drop kicks it across the floor. 

Eric, 15, junior rider for Team Rwanda, 3 years of school, father dead, mother raising him and 3 siblings by another father who left, living in a mud hut, dirt floor, no bed, no money for clean water or bananas to train, handing his mother $40 to feed her family better so Eric can race better and she saying God Bless You…..All Righty Then.

Rocky losing his eye, his daughter almost losing her leg, his brother dying last month…All Righty Then.

Here’s the deal.  If I let the tears come they don’t stop.

When I got on the plane in April to head to South Africa,after minutes prior to boarding and learning about Bona’s blood clot in hisbrain I started to cry.  For 4 hours Icried.  Luckily the lights were out and I was in a window seat so I curled up by the window and softly sobbed for the entire flight.  I thought about Bona every second, how fragile my strong, funny, talented rider looked in that bed, how he couldn’t even squeeze my hand as I held his.

It was a big big cry as Jonathan says.  The kind of cry when you wake up in the morning and your eyes are three times their normal size and stuck together with gunky eye cry snot.

I have only cried like that two other times since being here, one when my divorce was final, divorce will ALWAYS suck, even if amicable.  The other when I was in Kenya living alone, almost being arrested and missing the team.

Last week Bona went to the US.  As the photos have been coming through from Mr. AM in the emails showing Bona riding along Carmel beach, riding in Wyoming at the ranch and petting horses for the first time I get so emotional.  He almost died….we almost lost him.  I treasure every second of Bona’s life…every second he is here with us.

Today Bona is with me at the Little Savery Museum in Savery, Wyoming.  He's learning about the history of Wyoming and I'm pounding out emails and writing blogs because this is the only place I can get internet...9 miles down a dirt road from the ranch.

Bona spent the morning training and then driving the Polaris around the ranch.  He loves to drive!  

This past weekend in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Bona raced like a cyclist who had been training all year round and not laying in the hospital 5 months ago.  Every minute I spend with Bona I am happy.  He makes everything good in my world.  I love sharing my world with far from Rwanda.  We are the lucky ones.

Thanks Bo Bickerstaff for capturing these moments for us this weekend.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Refugee

Every day a Syrian, Eritrean, Libyan, a Somali dies leaving their country, seeking safety, freedom, a better life, dreams for their families.

Every day Americans go about their lives, getting Starbucks, meeting friends for drinks, complaining about poor service, getting kids ready for another school year.

Last night a refugee tried to open the door on my flight from Kigali to Brussels and jump out. 

Every flight out of Kigali, Rwanda there has been refugees.  You can’t miss them, big lanyards around their necks with all their documents courtesy of IOM, International Office of Migration, clutching bags with all their worldly possessions, fear, uncertainty, panic written on their faces.  Last night there was no such procession of refugees in Kigali, they boarded in Nairobi.  Kenya is home to one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Dadaab.

Several months ago, while boarding a flight out of Kigali, there were Congolese refugees who boarded ahead of me.  People of all ages with the youngest and the oldest looking most fearful, the 20, 30, 40 year olds looking stoic, strong.  As we boarded chaos ensued as these 50 refugees tried to find their seats.  They had never been on a plane.  This old man, just stood in the aisle looking at this little snippet of paper with his seat number on it.  He had no idea what he was looking at or why he was holding the paper.  I started helping the flight attend seat people.  As I helped the old Congolese man to find his seat, I couldn’t help but think, “Is this really better for him?”  I did not know his final destination—Europe or the US, it didn’t mater it was galaxies away from his world.  I can only imagine, having visited DRC, he was probably from some small village in the middle of the jungle, a village which probably migrated to a camp in search of safety.  They could have been fleeing one of the many warring factions, which keep the area in constant turmoil.  Chaos and war is highly lucrative to the few, the powerful.

What will this old man do in the first world, a world of speed, efficiency, and technology?  It seems at times we think, “Why wouldn’t someone want to move to the US after living with no electricity and plumbing in a mud hut miles from civilization?”

His mud hut, his village life is all he’s ever known.  It’s home.  I believe, given a choice, he would return to his village if it were safe. 

I believe Syrians, Libyans, Somalies just want their homes back, their lives back.  They want the right to raise their families in a safe environment in their culture.

It is what angers me about the many leaders or lack of government leaders who cause so much destruction among their people. 

I never saw the IOMs, as the “industry” calls them, board the plane.

At 5:20am I was awoken by an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board.  We were about an hour and 30 minutes from landing in Brussels.  I was sound asleep in seat 5K, business class savoring the “bed”, good food and calm I spent an extra $700 for to upgrade. 

With my sister being a doctor, this is a recurring conversation between us.  She has been on two flights where they have asked for a doctor on board and did CPR on someone as they were boarding a plane.  When I heard the announcement I thought of my sister.

Several minutes passed, the activity happened at the back of the plane so I didn’t hear much.  As I tried to pick up words in French and pieces of conversations among flight attendants at first it seemed if it was just a rowdy group of people who got into an argument.  Then a woman was brought to the galley directly behind my row and she began wailing, it was not crying, it was wailing.

The Captain came back on the intercom and announced we would be landing in Vienna, Austria.  We needed to get the plane down.  There was so much speculation at our end of the plane as to what happened.  We were on the ground in less than 30 minutes.

As we landed I checked my watch.  Hopefully we would be airborne again quickly.  My first feeling was annoyance; annoyance for all the craziness, which happens on this continent on a daily basis. 

As the minutes ticked away into hours I started to embrace the possibility of a missed connection in Brussels and an already long trek back to the US being made even longer.  I meditated.   I prayed for a quick resolution.

When the plane finally took back off a total of 7 people had been offloaded with luggage, most of us in business class still thinking it was just a rowdy group of people causing this massive hassle and delay.

And then I spoke with a flight attendant as we waited to deplane in Brussels. 

The melee was caused by a refugee who panicked.  He wanted off the plane even if it was at 35,000 feet.  He had become agitated and then went for the door and was stopped by several passengers and flight attendants.  He was too far-gone, panic and paranoia had set in. 

The flight attendant said in 10 years of flying he thought he’d seen it all.  He shook his head and said, “I never thought I’d see this, someone trying to jump out of the plane.”

He also told me he was with the group of refugees who had boarded in Nairobi.  He said Brussels Airlines flies thousands of refugees every year but the past couple of years have been the worst as far as numbers.  He’s had to show people how to use the toilet, the sink, and seatbelts.  These are people who may have come from never having used indoor plumbing. 

They trudge through deserts, minefields, past rebels and roadblocks all in hopes of arriving at an overcrowded refugee camp alive. 

Then the UNHCR processes the “lucky” ones and puts them on planes and sends them to new homes in the first world.

Never in a million years could most of us relate. 

At that point perspective set in and instead of praying for me to make my connection I prayed God would watch over that man and his family if he has any left. 

Why do people do this to one another; the fighting, the corruption, the exploitation, the fleeing and the dying, literally, for a new life?  How can we, in and of this world, allow this to happen?

A Syrian toddler dead on the shores of Turkey

And when I land in the US later today it will be as it’s always been and once again, I will be unable to relate.  And as much as I’ve wanted to come home for peace and quiet and structure and order, I will be thinking about this man, these refugees, this toddler.