Thursday, May 31, 2012

Introduction to Amazing Race Australia 2 recaps

As threatened, I'm ready to begin recapping Amazing Race: Australia season 2. The premiere episode debuted yesterday. Unlike my coverage of Amazing Race season 20, I'm planning to use a lot more images to liven up my text-heavy recaps. Before I get into the first episode, I'm using this space to discuss the Amazing Race, the idea behind my recaps and first impressions of the host and cast.

Amazing Race: Australia is one of several international versions of the Amazing Race, having debuted just last year. It's benefited from lessons learned by the producers of the US version (not to mention the South America, Asia & Israel editions), but the first year still felt like it had a few creases to iron out. As a seasoned fan of the Amazing Race, I appreciate how many of the program's contestants aren't prepared for what the Race involves, whereas by this time most Racers in the US version are so familiar with the premise that the producers have to keep shaking up their expectations.

What makes the Amazing Race worthwhile? Unlike some reality shows, it takes place in the real world, with the tasks the Racers perform being the only real manufactured aspect of the show. Racers make many of their own decisions on how they'll spend their money, where they'll sleep, what they'll eat, who they'll take directions from and so forth. Some teams make it appear easy as they seem to practically coast their way around the world; other teams visibly struggle as they face cultures and tasks far outside their comfort zone. The best aspects of the Amazing Race are seeing the participants push themselves past their limits, refusing to give up on challenges, overcoming seemingly superior adversaries, conquering personal fears and even enjoy each other's company and the experience of racing around the world (many teams have a lot of trouble grasping the latter aspects).

Amazing Race: Australia is hosted by Grant Bowler; strangely, he, like US host Phil Keoghan, is from New Zealand; whereas Phil's career has been mainly in the USA, Bowler's has been mainly in Australia. Bowler is an experienced reality show host, but I have to say I found him a little off on last year's show; he didn't seem to be at ease with his position as host, nor did he seem to build any rapport with the Racers. I'll be paying attention this season to see how he's improved, just as Phil changed between his first two Amazing Races.

This season's 11 teams are:

Shane & Andrew, police crime scene investigators in Melbourne. They count their relationship being "thick as thieves" and their abilities at "attention to detail" as major advantages on the Race. "When you take someone to the trenches, you take this bloke!" says Shane of Andrew; "And vice versa!" Andrew responds. Shane admits they're competitive, "But we wouldn't burn someone. Well... maybe..." They seem like they have a strong friendship and could be a lot of fun on the Race!

Michelle & Jo are twin sisters, born 34 seconds apart ("I'm the oldest!" says Michelle). Hailing from Sydney, they're blonde cheerleaders, but think they're more cunning than people might expect - they're also flight attendants so they've got a great grasp on travel, which is indeed a major bonus on the Race... not one which has ever led to any previous airline industry staff winning the Amazing Race, but an advantage all the same.

Tasmanians Sticky & Sam are flatmates. As you can see above, Sticky has no left arm, having been born without one. I think this is an Amazing Race - first Racer with one arm (although the US season 10 had a Racer with only one leg). Like many Racers who have a physical disability, Sticky speaks of his determination to prove himself. A clip of the duo shows off Sticky's ability at bowling a cricket ball, while Sam complains Sticky is always stealing girls from him. I tend to root for Racers with disabilities because they "get" that aspect of overcoming obstacles which I mentioned earlier; we'll soon see if Sticky & Sam are worth rooting for!

Self-described "on-again-off-again" couple James and Sarah have a nine year gap between their ages (Sarah is the elder, as you might've guessed). They live in Melbourne and have been dating for two years; Sarah seems to think she's a "cougar;" I can see how people might call her that, but I thought cougars were, like, 20 years older or more than their dates? Sarah does worry about them arguing on the Race, which is genuine concern every couple on the program should have; statistically, the Amazing Race has split up more couples than it's brought together.

Adam & Dane are cousins and the first aboriginal team on the Amazing Race! Hailing from Tweed Heads, they're a fun-loving pair; Adam claims their indigenous skills will help them on the Race and starts talking about their tracking powers. "We'll never get lost." says Dane with a smirk. Adam mocks Dane for being a touch vain and Dane jokingly admits he went on the Race because "I want to prove to Adam I can go a full 24 hours without looking in my reflection."

From Geraldton, Sue & Teresa are best friends and hair stylists; Teresa owns the hair salon while Sue is Teresa's employee. They admit people have dubbed them "hippes" and they do start talking about "karma." It seems like more Amazing Race contestants believe in karma than not (to say nothing of the fans)! They hope their "positive energy" will yield rewards on the Race. And if karma were real, it might.

Ross & Tarryn, another team from Melbourne, are father & daughter and both are athletes. Ross played in AFL football, a version of football I'm not familiar with. Tarryn is a basketball player. Tarryn is about to move away from home and is eager to prove her independence to her father. They have obvious credentials to deal with the physical demands of the Race, but so far as I know, no parent-offspring team has ever won the Amazing Race (at least in the US). I tend to like the parent-offspring teams, so I hope these two pan out.

Lucy & Emilia are sisters of Italian descent and both teach Italian in Sydney. Emilia claims Lucy has a stronger Italian accent than her; perhaps a native Australian could judge them, to me they both sound terribly Australian. This is the second female-female team comprised of sisters within the same Race!

Kym & Donna are an engaged couple from Brisbane and easily the coolest-looking team thus far. "We click together like two bits of Lego." says Kym, garnering the Lego vote in this household. They're the oldest team running this season and Donna notes "We've got enough friends, we're old. Don't need more friends. Always need more money." meaning they aren't afraid of offending their competition.

Joseph & Grace are a brother-sister team (so many family-related teams this season!) from (I think) Sydney. They were raised by a single mother and are currently living together; Joseph is becoming a successful bank employee. Grace admits he was "the man of the house" when they were growing up, but now she sees him as "Mr. Know-It-All" and she wants to tell him "what's right and what's wrong."

Finally, Paul & Steve, our final team from Melbourne. Paul is an accountant while Steve describes himself as "hands-on" (hence the orange vest), but they both work at the same company. "If anyone stands in my way my general attitude is 'step aside or get stepped on.'" says Paul, who comes off as very severe. Paul describes himself as competitive three times in a row (work, gym and dating). "We're here to win. If we believe burning a team gives us the best chance, then that's what we'll do." says Steve. So, we've got at least one team who are willing to be this season's villains.

Return tomorrow for my recap of episode 1!

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bitter Fruit#7: "The Diabolical Dr. Demon!"

...And we're back. Not only has my time spent in Africa disrupted many of my usual routines, my growing discontent with the comic book industry in general has kept me from thinking about comics on this blog.

Nonetheless, I promised to cover all eight issues of Archie's 1964 the Shadow and so I shall! Let's pick it up with issue #4:

The cover promises us "a new menace... the Diabolical Dr. Demon!" That sounds promising, since Shiwan Khan has figured in almost every story so far. However, Khan is on the cover too, being shot at by Dr. Demon's men. Hm.

The splash page of "the Diabolical Dr. Demon!" uses the same art as the cover, with the addition of dialogue for Dr. Demon. As you can see, he's not just dressed like a Nazi, he talks like a comic book-Nazi too.

Somewhere in Central Europe, a plane alights and out steps Dr. Demon, who declares "nossing has changed in der past 19 years! Nossing, except Hitler dead und I am alive!" Yes indeed, Dr. Demon is a card-carrying Nazi who went into "secret exile" before the end of World War II. But where was he hiding all these years? And why is the location simply "somewhere in Central Europe?"

Dr. Demon thinks he and Hitler would have eventually become rivals as masters of the world, but with Hitler gone, now no one is in his way; which is why it's taken 19 years for him to make his next move? Dr. Demon's men remind him there's another would-be master of the world, Shiwan Khan, but Dr. Demon believes his "scientific genius" is superior. He's set up a laboratory to deal with Shiwan Khan and "der Shadow" and declares "Today der laboratory... tomorrow der Earth!" it probably sounded more impressive in his head.

A month passes and we resume in West Germany at the Berlin Wall, where the Shadow awaits three agents of Shiwan Khan who are delivering information to their master from East Germany. This is the first Shadow adventure in the series in which our hero enters the story already in costume, which hopefully means we can sidestep some of the nonsense about Lamont Cranston being a secret agent who's secretly a super hero. The Shadow roughs up Khan's agents and hypnotizes one of them, ordering him to lead the way to Khan's West Berlin headquarters.

And then, the Shadow decides he should switch identities back to Lamont Cranston. Oh, bother. While the hypnotized flunky stands by, Lamont telephones Weston, telling him where to find the other two agents. After this, the hypnotized agent leads Lamont to Khan's base and even warns him about an electric fence; after the agent shows Lamont how to get past the defenses, Lamont knocks him out. He explains it thusly: "I need him around like a hole in the head when I change into the Shadow!" But wasn't he around when the Shadow changed into Lamont Cranston?

In the next panel, Lamont has become the Shadow again; so he switched to his civilian guise just to make a telephone call? Anyway, the Shadow sees a helicopter landing on Khan's estate and Dr. Demon disembarks with his men; the Shadow recognizes Dr. Demon as "Hitler's leading scientist." He utters this in present tense, as though Hitler were still alive. Dr. Demon was supposedly killed by the Russians in 1945, but the Shadow believes this is the same man because "there's no mistaking that sardonic face, that metallic arm, that crippled leg!" It's only now I realize Dr. Demon has a brace on his left leg and although his left hand seemed to be wearing a black glove, upon closer inspection I see it's supposed to be a metallic hand. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I thought the mismatched colours on Dr. Demon's feet and hands were colouring errors, although Dr. Demon's two-page introduction did nothing to establish his identifying marks within the text itself (also, note the image above where his arm & leg are described but not seen).

The Shadow thinks Dr. Demon is "even worse than Shiwan Khan" and "If Hitler had listened to Dr. Demon, Germany might have won the war!" Dr. Demon's men wield cumbersome ray machines which seem to be flamethrowers, except they're able to carve through the solid wall of Khan's estate. Thusly, Dr. Demon blasts into Khan's base and confronts him; Khan recognizes Dr. Demon as the Nazi declares he's "Returned from der dead... to replace you as der Shadow's chief rival!" Boys, boys... I'm sure you two could be equally ineffectual as the Shadow's rival.

But! The Shadow comes up behind Dr. Demon and plants a gun in his back! But! Shiwan Khan throws a switch and drops the Shadow, Dr. Demon & Dr. Demon's men through a trap door ("Bless Buddha!" Shiwan Khan cries, in case the audience has forgotten his ethnicity)! The men find themselves in a pit before a giant open flame; Shiwan Khan claims he can kill them all with the flip of a switch. The depth of this pit is not clear - at first they seem to be about 10 feet below Shiwan Khan, but in the following panel they're at least 15 feet.

Dr. Demon uses one of his men's weapons (finally identified as "atomizers") to blast an escape from the furnace, but the Shadow uses the blast as a means to disappear in the smoke. Concealed within the smoke (why doesn't he use his power to become invisible?), the Shadow knocks out each of Dr. Demon's men, then grabs an atomizer and holds Dr. Demon hostage. When Shiwan Khan (catch-phrase: "By Buddha!") comes downstairs with a handful of his men to see if the Shadow & Dr. Demon are dead... wait, there are stairs now? What happened to the trap door, which was open until now? The length of the staircase also suggests the pit is deeper than 15 feet...

...Anyway, the Shadow uses the captured atomizer to blast the stairs out from under Khan, dropping him to the floor. However, Dr. Demon suddenly grabs the atomizer and jams it, then bolts out of the room. Shiwan Khan pulls out a gun and orders his men to shoot Dr. Demon and the Shadow to death, but the Shadow attacks Khan's men, then pursues Dr. Demon back to his helicopter. The Shadow determines Dr. Demon will "probably blow up the place with some special bomb he's invented!" If he had such a bomb, why didn't he nuke Khan's estate from above? It's the only way to be sure.

Actually, the bomb has already been planted and Dr. Demon detonates it as he leaves in the helicopter. He claims "I haf left an infernal machine in der house!" Does he mean the atomizer he left behind? It would have made more sense if when Dr. Demon "jammed" the atomizer he'd also set it to overload, creating a "ticking bomb" problem for the Shadow to deal with, rather than these off-panel shenanigans.

The bomb explodes, decimating Khan's stronghold, yet I doubt we've seen the last of him. The Shadow has held on to the helicopter's undercarriage and travels with Dr. Demon back to his castle laboratory in "Central Europe." If it's within flight of Berlin, surely it's Germany? As the Shadow sneaks into Dr. Demon's home base, back at Khan's Berlin estate, he and his men have survived. "A miracle, that's what it was! A miracle I was standing below and behind a bomb-proof wall and ceiling!" Characters in the Shadow seem to operate by children's playtime rules: "I have a bomb now! You're dead!" "Nuh-uh! It turns out I had a bomb-proof vest!"

One of Shiwan Khan's men tries to look on the bright side, noting "The Shadow! He was in the building with you! Did you see him coming out?" Khan didn't see the Shadow exit (catch-phrase: "By Buddha"), so concludes the Shadow died in the blast... even though two pages earlier we saw the Shadow exiting Khan's base while dodging gunfire from Khan and his men. Try to keep up with your own story, comic book makers. Regardless, Shiwan Khan wants revenge on Dr. Demon and sets out to determine where Dr. Demon's base is; a "sonic trail" directs him to his base in "the Black Forest." Why be so coy about "Central Europe" when you're later going to identify the specific locale?

The Shadow peers inside Dr. Demon's base and sees a small collection of dangerous missile weaponry. However, Dr. Demon's men have realized they have an intruder thanks to the base's "protective screen." The Shadow, whose one power is to not be noticed, has yet again failed to meet his own hype; they "electrify" the base walls because stone is such a great conductor and the Shadow is stunned by the voltage, causing him to fall from the outside wall.

Dr. Demon has his men retrieve the unconscious Shadow, bind and gag him, then orders men armed with atomizers to execute the Shadow, leading us to the image seen on the cover and splash page. Before the atomizers can fire, Shiwan Khan invades the base, using a car with a cannon mounted on its hood to blast his way in. Shiwan Khan (catch-phrase: "By Buddha!") is a little annoyed to see the Shadow is still alive and Dr. Demon declares now his atomizers will kill Khan and the Shadow.

Shiwan Khan suggests making a deal with Dr. Demon, but Dr. Demon refuses and his men open fire. Even though they're firing at two men who aren't moving, they fail to hit them. At the Shadow's prompting, Khan removes the Shadow's blindfold, enabling him to hypnotize the men firing the atomizers, preventing them from firing their guns. Afraid of being hypnotized, Dr. Demon leaps from the walls of his base, preferring to "risk death." Shiwan Khan runs away too, leaving the Shadow alone in the base. What became of Shiwan Khan's men, Dr. Demon's army... who knows? This story certainly doesn't care. Did Dr. Demon die? Probably not, we didn't even see how far he jumped (he somehow went from the ground to the top of a rampart wall between panels; the rampart seemed about 10 feet from the ground, but I've already gone into how suspect the art is on distances).

The Grand Comics Database again credits artwork on the cover and story to Paul Reinman, but this time the story is credited to Superman's co-creator, Jerry Siegel! It's hard to believe at this time, Siegel was still turning out acceptable fare for DC's Superman and Legion of Super-Heroes; "the Diabolical Dr. Demon!" is, at best, by-the-numbers, but the leaps in logic around Dr. Demon's bomb and the ever-inconsistent use of the Shadow's powers probably wouldn't have escaped DC's editorial team. I can only hope Siegel teared up a little when he saw this black-haired version of the Shadow wore glasses in his civilian garb.

When I set out to examine Archie's the Shadow, I had hoped this might be enjoyably terrible, or terrible in an instructive way. I'd even hoped to be entertained, since I have some fondness for the Shadow. So far, the real sin of Archie's the Shadow is it's mediocrity; but I don't have to look to 1964 to find a mediocre super hero comic, 2012 is amply supplied with such fare.

Next: "the Human Bomb!" Sounds tasteful!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Amazing Race 20-11 recap: "It's a Great Place to Become Millionaires"

At last, the conclusion of my Amazing Race season 20 recaps; although we're heading into this program with four teams still racing, this two-hour finale actually comprises two legs of the Race, as I think every two-hour finale has done, as opposed to being a single leg spread across two hours of film. Consequently, we'll be hitting an elimination point halfway through the episode.

We resume in Cochin, India ("the City of Harmony" Phil says) with Rachel & Dave departing the previous leg's Pit Stop. They're instructed to travel by plane to Hiroshima, Japan then board a train to the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima. Dave claims his relationship with Rachel is more important than $1 million, but doesn't show it very often. He does admit while on the Race, he considers Rachel his teammate, not his wife; Rachel taunts Dave into admitting he really thinks of her as a soldier. Rachel/Dave, Brendon/Rachel, Vanessa/Ralph & Art/J.J. all wind up on the same flight to Hiroshima, with Vanessa still suffering from the twisted ankle she suffered on the previous leg.

In Hiroshima, Brendon & Rachel miss a bus from the airport and Rachel places the blame squarely on Brendon for not listening to her: "From now on, I'm not making any decisions, you can do them all." Brendon tries to reason with her but she keeps talking over him, as she so often does. He finally seems to clue in that talking to her is unproductive and just lets her stew in her own juices. Anyway, this missed bus was inconsequential in the Race.

Teams have some difficulty understanding how to order their train tickets and Rachel & Dave wind up missing a vital train which places them hours behind the other three teams when they miss the ferry boat to Miyajima Island. However, the next clue doesn't arrive until "the rising sun," giving Rachel & Dave the time they need to catch up. So far every time it has seemed like a team has fallen behind, it's turned out to be false drama. During the interim before all four teams catch up, we are at least treated to J.J. calling Ralph & Vanessa "Conan & Kardashian."

An old man with a cart delivers their next clue, directing teams to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Atomic Bomb Dome, a memorial park set up to commemorate the fall of the Atomic Bomb. The teams take a moment at the park to reflect on the brutality of war; Brendon comes off sounding unintentionally naive: "I'm a physicist. I study radiation and we try to use radiation to help people get rid of their cancer, so to see radiation can cause massive destruction is just... it's a hard thing to comprehend." At the park, their next clue directs them to travel by train to the TV8 studio in Osaka, Japan.

After departing the train, teams set about getting rather lost. Art & J.J. get a good taxi driver who knows where the TV8 studio is, but the others flail around; Vanessa & Ralph wind up at a former location of TV8. Thus, Art & J.J. find themselves at the studio alone and Art takes on this leg's Roadblock: performing on a wacky Japanese game show! We had a wacky Japanese game show back in season 15 when the Race went to Japan, I think it was hosted by the same Japanese man as well. What does this tell viewers about Japan? What does it tell us about what the Amazing Race producers feel about Japan? Anyway, Art has to run against a conveyer belt and grab three rubber chickens which are hanging over his head. Once all three chickens have been pulled down, he must run to the end of the belt and jump on to a mat at the end. It's not that challenging for Art, but he falls down a lot, providing many opportunities for laughs and hijinks and whatnot.

The other teams are running around "like chickens with our heads cut off" according to Ralph; the poor guy has no idea what the Roadblock is, but he gave the editors a present! Art finishes the Roadblock before any other teams arrive and he and J.J. head to the Umeda Sky Building, where their next clue awaits them as a media file on a computer screen. The other three teams arrive at the Roadblock at about the same time; Vanessa, Brendon and Dave's Rachel take the Roadblocks, in part because their teams are trying to keep an even number of Roadblocks between each other, what with there being a limit of six Roadblocks per teammate and at least one Roadblock waiting in the final leg.

Vanessa really struggles on the conveyer belt because of her injured ankle. Rachel & Brendon finish the Roadblock, leaving Vanessa alone. Ralph becomes nervous for Vanessa's sake and suggests she take a 4-hour penalty rather than risk seriously injuring herself. However, Vanessa refuses to give up and keeps trying. At this point, the wackiness of the "game show" has been seriously deflated. However, Vanessa toughens up and keeps going.

At the Umeda Sky Building, Art & J.J. find the computer screens which direct them to this legs Detours: "Photo Cut-Out" or "Bingo Shout-Out." In "Photo Cut-Out," teams have to carry standees of sumo wrestlers and convince ten groups of three people to have their picture taken. In "Bingo Shout-Out," teams enter a sushi restaurant and collect pieces of sushi fill out a bingo board which spells out S-U-S-H-I using the first letter of the sushi's names. Art & J.J. like the sound of the sushi challenge, which wouldn't be my first choice since it relies on a lot of luck.

Vanessa finally defeats the Roadblock, impressing Ralph with her tenacity. At the Umeda Sky Building, Rachel & Dave decide on the photography task, while Brendon & Rachel head out for sushi. As they head to their taxi, Dave finds his backpack has been unzipped and gets upset with Rachel, cajoling her at least twice about how she shouldn't unzip her bag; this gets Rachel miffed since she claims she didn't open his bag and she calls him a "freak." Rachel launches into her own tirade over this, being in no mood for Dave's dictatorial mood, leading to an exchange which was originally previewed back in episode 1:

Dave: "Just stop. Silence is golden."

Rachel: "Then why don't you shut the CENSORED up?"

Until this moment, I hadn't realized we he had an outstanding spoiler from the first episode preview unaccounted for.

Vanessa & Ralph decide to take the sushi challenge and pass Brendon & Rachel at the Umeda Sky Building, upsetting the easily-upsettable Rachel. Art & J.J. are already at work on the sushi challenge, but J.J. is flummoxed at trying to identify pieces of sushi by name. Rachel & Dave set to work at the photography challenge and have trouble convincing people to pose for them, but after some early attempts at asking people in a friendly manner, they start forcing people to comply, practically dragging them behind the sumo wrestler stand-ees.

Vanessa & Ralph's taxi driver gets lost trying to find the sushi challenge and Vanessa accuses Ralph of getting "nostalgic" when he starts admiring their surroundings instead of obsessing about the Race. At the photography challenge, Rachel & Dave have finished and head to the Pit Stop location, Osaka Castle. Art & J.J. finally complete their sushi bingo, eat their sushi and head to the Pit Stop.

Vanessa & Ralph finally arrive at their Detour, while Brendon & Rachel struggle at the challenge; Rachel loses her cool a few times, but Brendon actually holds his ground for once, firmly trying to keep control of the situation. At Osaka Castle, Rachel & Dave take first place, tying the Amazing Race record of seven victories (set by Nick & Starr in season 13) and winning a trip to New Zealand, which Phil personally vouches for. And, of course, they're in the final three for the last leg. Art & J.J. arrive at the Castle, but can't find the Pit Stop.

Brendon & Rachel finish the Detour ahead of Vanessa & Ralph and head to the Pit Stop. They arrive as Art & J.J. are still looking for Phil. Soon, Vanessa & Ralph pull in and one wonders... how did Rachel & Dave find Phil with seemingly no difficulty? Finally, Art & J.J. locate Phil and claim second place. Art hugs Phil, prompting:

J.J.: "Don't molest Phil!"

Art: "I have to!"

Brendon & Rachel are in third place, leaving Vanessa & Ralph as the eliminated team. Vanessa squeaks in one final "cheese & crackers" as they arrive at the Pit Stop. Phil congratulates Vanessa for not giving up on the Roadblock, demonstrating the exact attitude Phil has consistently demanded from the Racers; I concur, teams who don't give up on difficult challenges have a lot of traction with me too. The last three teams are left waiting for the final leg to begin, Dave declaring it "Operation: Amazing Race." So, let's start that final leg!

Rachel & Dave leave Osaka Castle with directions to visit Honolulu, Hawaii and find their next location using a riddle which mentions "twins." This is supposed to lead them to the Twin Towers. Of Hawaii, Dave says "It's a Great Place to Become Millionaires," providing the final episode's title. All three of the remaining teams wind up on the same flight to Hawaii, as you'd expect. J.J. really wants to win: "Second place would feel like such a waste."

Arriving in Honolulu, Rachel/Dave & Art/J.J. both seem to have ditched their bags so they can travel faster, a tactic many teams have used in previous seasons; Brendon & Rachel still have their bags, suggesting they don't know about this. Rachel & Dave's taxi driver knows about the Twin Towers but Art & J.J.'s doesn't, so they follow Rachel & Dave's taxi. Dave befriends his taxi driver, recognizing him as a fellow veteran and the driver obligingly shakes Art & J.J.'s taxi. At the Twin Towers, Rachel & Dave are instructed to rappel to the top of one of the skyscrapers then search the horizon for a flag marking their next location; then they have to rappel back down to the bottom of the tower. Brendon & Rachel catch up Rachel & Dave, but Art & J.J. are lost; the other two teams are pleased by this. Art & J.J. are sent way off-course by locals who don't understand the riddle.

Big Brother's Rachel finds the rappel very difficult, not only from the physical demands on her but also because it means traveling to a terrifying height; she has to psyche herself up to keep moving. Rachel & Dave finish the task well ahead of them. Elsewhere, Art & J.J. finally locate a passerby who directs them to the Twin Towers. As Rachel & Dave head down the tower Rachel declares, "Honey, you look like my super hero!" and the ever-humble Dave answers "I am!" Brendon & Rachel finish the task before Art & J.J. arrive and decide they have a 50/50 chance of winning the Race now; Rachel has some newfound confidence from this. As Art & J.J. begin the task, we're reminded J.J. is afraid of heights. Art, however, calls it "getting my Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol on"

At the flagged location, it's Roadblock time for Brendon & Dave, who must each use a katana to shave a block of ice to fill up a bucket, then present the bucket to Hawaii Five-O actor Taylor Wily. Dave's Rachel looks at the Twin Towers in the distance and sees Art & J.J. climbing down; "They look like little bugs! I want to squish them!" Dave finishes the Roadblock and follows his clue to travel on foot to a nearby baseball field where a helicopter will ferry them to their next location. After they leave, Art & J.J. arrive and refuse to speak to Brendon & Rachel; J.J. takes the Roadblock.

Brendon & Rachel finish the task, but Rachel doesn't understand the clue and they return to their taxi, who brings them to a baseball stadium. By now, J.J. is done the Roadblock and, reading his clue correctly, leads Art to the helicopter. Arriving at the stadium and finding nothing there, Brendon asks Rachel to read him the clue and when he hears "travel on foot" realizes the mistake. They have to return to the Roadblock site and Brendon is agonizing over the error. "Okay Brendon! Brendon stop freaking out! I'm sorry! Trust me Brendon, I want to shoot myself right now too!" Once again, Rachel shuts down when she makes a mistake; she has no problem blaming Brendon when she thinks he's done wrong (such as the previous leg's bus incident), but when she makes a costly error she expects him to simply move on; she talks to him as though by complaining, he's the one who made a mistake. She even says "We made a mistake," emphasis mine. "I don't want crazy Rachel," says Brendon.

The helicopter brings Rachel & Dave to a beach where their next clue tells them to perform a rescue simulation using a waverunner; one must drive the waverunner, while the other rides behind on a board and rescues the "distressed swimmer" in the simulation. Rachel opts to drive against Dave's wishes, but she observes he'll be better at rescuing the swimmer than she would; sure enough, they finish the task with no real difficulties and return to shore.

Brendon & Rachel still haven't reached their helicopter and are in a shouting match with each other as Rachel refuses to run. She'd be better at running if she didn't have to carry her bags... pity they didn't think of it. They finally reach their helicopter, but are barely able to speak to each other.

Rachel & Dave are directed by their next clue to find the Coral Kingdom Gate and follow a marked path; they board a taxi. Art & J.J. arrive at the beach and finish the rescue simulation easily and head to a taxi. Brendon & Rachel perform the simulation last.

Rachel & Dave's taxi lets them off at the wrong location, but they take off on foot anyway. Art & J.J.'s driver brings them to the Gate and they start on the marked path, not realizing they're currently in first place. Rachel & Dave wander up to a location on the Race they aren't supposed to have reached yet, discovering a dock with boards and oars along with instructions to paddle surf across a lake. Even though they haven't followed the marked path, Rachel & Dave appear to have been done in by tunnel vision and head across the lake.

Back on the correct path, Art & J.J. arrive at the final Roadblock of the Race; as on previous finales which had two Roadblocks in a single leg, the person who didn't perform the previous Roadblock must perform this one, even if the team has managed to keep an extra Roadblock slot open through Fast Forwards or Express Passes. In this challenge, one team member must ride a land sled (a long and slender device) down a hill to a marked line without falling off; then, the team member must bowl a lava rock across the ground and into a pouch. Since J.J. performed the ice task, Art has to perform the sled and bowling task; he falls off the sled a lot, finding it immensely difficult.

Elsewhere, Rachel & Dave finish crossing the lake and run to the Finish Line, where Phil and the 8 eliminated teams are waiting. However, Phil informs them they haven't won the Race - they still have a Roadblock to perform and must return to complete it! And thus, we have an Amazing Race first; we've seen teams run to the Pit Stop without finishing a leg before, but this is the first time a team has tried to check in at the Finish Line without finishing the leg! Rachel & Dave return to try and find the Coral Kingdom Gate entrance.

Rachel & Dave reach the Roadblock and Art & J.J. are astonished to see them; Rachel takes on the Roadblock and proves much better at it than Art, quickly completing the sledding. I think her advantage was simply being lighter than Art. Rachel finishes the bowling task and she and Dave head off in an ATV back to the paddle surf task. Brendon & Rachel arrive at the Roadblock next, with Rachel taking on the Roadblock and she also finishes the sled before Art. However, Art finally completes the sledding, then completes bowling before Rachel, drawing them back into second place.

Rachel & Dave return to the Finish Line and win the Amazing Race and the $1 million. They ran a very competitive race, but it's difficult to feel pleased with this outcome; although Rachel enjoyed the traveling and adventure, Dave seemed impatient and upset while racing and only able to enjoy the experience when reflecting on it afterward. They've set a new record for legs won (8 legs), but the reactions I've seen online suggest they are not a widely like team.

Art & J.J. claim second place; I liked these two overall, but J.J. was, like Dave, too competitive and resorted to trash-talking too often. Their friendship seemed healthier than Rachel & Dave's marriage, but I've seen from reactions online how J.J.'s attitude alienated viewers.

Finally, Brendon & Rachel claim third place; Brendon hopes with the Race over, perhaps now he and Rachel can be friends with the other teams. Here we have yet another team which the fans weren't wild about. To their credit, they seemed to enjoy the actual adventure aspect of the program (unlike Dave), but Rachel was simply terrible at competition; she succeeded at virtually everything she attempted, but not without copious amounts of whining and complaining. Again, this is a team which alienated viewers.

Even the producers sense the real stars of this season were fifth place team Bopper & Mark. Says Bopper: "Everything I went through on this Race, I done it for my little girl, if i had it to do right now, I'd do it all again." That sounds like a lead-in to the next Amazing Race: All-Stars! Dave declares "Operation: Amazing Race" a success. I wish him luck with "Operation: Happy Marriage."

Although I sense many Amazing Race fans were unhappy with this season - mainly because of the top three teams - I give it a passing grade. What made this a great Race was the design - the locations visited, the challenges, the difficult clues and how the Race seemed to become more intense as it went on. For instance, the first non-elimination leg was followed by a leg set in a different country, giving the last place team a chance to catch up during the travel times. The last two NELs were followed by a leg set at the same location, giving the last place teams no easy opportunity to catch up.

I rank season 20 as "above average," but don't place too much stock in my opinion; I think the best seasons were 1, 7, 13 & 17 and I really like 3, 6, 10 & 18 - Amazing Race fandom seriously disagrees about the quality of some of those Races.

Next: That's it for season 20 of the Amazing Race and season 21 shouldn't be due until the fall. In the meantime, I'm considering covering Amazing Race: Australia season 2 on the blog, as Amazing Race posts are the most popular blog entries I've made thus far. The Australia start date hasn't been announced yet, but it should begin within two weeks. Watch this space!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Amazing Race 20-10 recap: "I Need Hair to be Pretty"

Welcome back; I'm well behind on the Amazing Race now, but there are just two episodes left to recap in season 20; here's the episode from two weeks ago.

The Race resumes in Cochin, India with Rachel and Dave departing in first place, sending them to the town of Chandiroor to receive their next clue from a temple. Rachel is now very confident about their combined power as a team, thinking their biggest enemies are each other. As Brendon & Rachel leave next, they remark on how other teams (Art/J.J. & Vanessa/Ralph) have been making fun of them and Brendon wants Rachel to keep from getting "emotional." As Art & J.J. depart, J.J. reveals he's suffering from a cold; I've just returned from my own international adventures with a cold so I know how it happens.

As Vanessa & Ralph depart, Ralph describes their strategy as racing "as if we're in last place." Vanessa knowingly adds "which typically is the case." Ralph worries about having to endure physical challenges since Vanessa isn't at her best at demanding work; Vanessa calls herself "old." Bopper & Mark are three hours behind the other teams and still waiting at the Pit Stop; Mark's near-heat stroke is still keeping him down.

At the temple at Chandiroor, Rachel & Dave see there's a Fast Forward available on this leg, but they can't take it, having performed a Fast Forward before; instead, they follow their next instructions to Pattanakkad. As Brendon & Rachel arrive at the temple, Rachel notes "this isn't necessarily my religion," which is a very odd way of describing her beliefs. Perhaps she's a Universalist? Seeing the Fast Forward option, Rachel decides they should pursue it, which sends them to a different temple. Vanessa & Ralph correctly surmise Brendon & Rachel have gone to the Fast Forward and decide not to pursue it.

At the Fast Forward, we discover the task is a "Switch Back," meaning a task which we've seen on an earlier season of the Amazing Race. The Switch Back debuted on season 15 as a way of bringing back particularly notorious tasks. This particular task requires both team members to shave their heads. It debuted on season 5 when models Brendon & Nicole attempted it, but ultimately refused the task because they thought shaving their heads would ruin their modeling careers. It was brought back in season 7 and couple Uchenna & Joyce opted to use it; they went on to win the Amazing Race and became one of the all-time most popular teams in the series history (including a favourite of yours truly). A few clips from season 7 are brought out as Phil describes the task.

Brendon is eager to shave his head, having done it before as a swimmer, but Rachel, as is her idiom, begins to sob: "I don't want to shave my head. I paid $500 for extensions. It would be so sad!" Y'know, this task was also used last year on Amazing Race: Australia and the woman who had her head shaved also had extensions; it didn't really faze her. Anyway, Rachel doesn't want to shave her head; she asks Brendon at least twice whether he wants her to shave her head, but, as is his idiom, Brendon refuses to take charge of the situation, telling her it's her choice; they give up on the task and head to Pattanakkad, having lost some time.

At Pattanakkad, Vanessa & Ralph have some taxi luck and arrive first; it's Roadblock time and one team member must weave 40 feet of rope from cocoanut husks. Ralph takes it on, but other teams soon arrive with Dave and Art joining in. Even Brendon & Rachel catch up; "It's a Roadblock. You have to do it." Rachel declares to Brendon. J.J. is flummoxed to see none of the other teams went for the Fast Forward and realizes it means Bopper & Mark could claim it, seize first place and thus the other four teams might be fighting for last place.

Regarding her decision to avoid the Fast Forward, Rachel offers this description of season 7's Joyce: "I know another girl in another season did it, but, she was really cute and skinny and pretty and I need hair to be pretty." It's weird how Rachel can turn "really cute and skinny and pretty" into something of an insult. Personally, those aren't the words I'd use to describe Joyce; she was beautiful, no doubt, but skinnier than Rachel? I don't think so. Gorgeous, perhaps, but not "cute." Having her head shaved was a difficult moment for Joyce, not something she went into lightly and she was ashamed to show people her head afterward; she wasn't all right with having her head shaved because she was confident in her own appearance (note back in season 7 her repeating "inner beauty" to herself as the hair comes off), but because she really, really wanted to win the Amazing Race.

"Does anybody play the game strategically? Does anybody have a clue what's going on?" J.J. wonders aloud, voicing this audience member's thoughts. "I already feel enough about my big nose which Vanessa had to point out, I don't need a big nose and no hair." Rachel summarizes; well, at least she admits she has a big nose? I can't say I noticed.

As Dave nears the end of the Roadblock, his wife calls out "You're almost done, Dave." As is his idiom, Dave responds in a weary voice: "Babe, I don't need positive reinforcement, please. I appreciate silence. Thanks, though." Dave is just determined to be nobody's favourite Racer, isn't he? Ralph finishes the Roadblock first and they head out to find their rickshaw and head to the next location, Fort Kochi. However, as Vanessa runs to the rickshaw she trips and hits the ground, hard. Vanessa has a few scrapes on her body from hitting the ground, but more importantly, she's injured her left ankle and thinks she heard a "pop." She thinks she'll be all right as she limps back to her feet. Vanessa says, "People see me, they see big eyes, big hair, big boobs and they think, she must be a bimbo. I'm so much tougher than I look! I mean, I have a really high tolerance for pain." Having decided her ankle is just twisted, they carry on. I have a lot of respect for Vanessa for demonstrating some real toughness.

J.J. asks Rachel why they didn't use the Fast Forward and she reveals it was a head shaving task. J.J. claims he understands her decision and suggests she could have succeeded at the task. J.J.'s actually hoping he can convince Brendon & Rachel to go back and do the Fast Forward, just to secure he and Art's position in the Race. As Art and Brendon finish the Roadblock, Bopper & Mark leave the Pit Stop.

At Fort Kochi, teams arrive at the Detour options: "Pachyderm" which requires teams to decorate an elephant, then load 15 wheelbarrows of elephant manure into a truck; "Pack a Box" requires teams to sift ginger into 10 boxes, then deliver the boxes. Three of the teams choose "Pachyderm" while only Art & J.J. decide "Pack a Box," assuming a manual labour task will be to their advantage.

At Chandiroor, Bopper & Mark begin their Speed Bump task: they must paint a tiger face on the belly of a dancer. It's a fun little task and they have some fun with it, as is their idiom.

At the "Pachyderm" task, teams have a lot of fun decorating the elephants, which doesn't seem to be a very difficult task. On the other hand, Art & J.J. find the "Pack a Box" is a lot of hard work - it's definitely the slower Detour option, even if you do have the strength. When Art muses wistfully about the unused Fast Forward, J.J. remarks: "No one else has the balls to do it. So we thought we were playing with some people who had half a brain, but no, they are the laziest group of people I've ever met. It's astounding, somebody could give you a free pass to the end and you don't want to cut your hair for a million dollars? Then why are you even here? Why are you even on the Race? So let's see if Kentucky has half a brain 'cause if they do, they're gonna be in first."

At "Pachyderm," teams begin loading up their wheelbarrows of manure. Rachel yells her "Holy manure!" catch-phrase for the second time this season. Vanessa is trying to keep track of Brendon & Rachel's wheelbarrows in addition to her own and thinks Brendon & Rachel skipped several loads.

Bopper & Mark finish the Speed Bump and see the Fast Forward clue. They decide they should see whether it's been taken. At "Pachyderm," Rachel & Dave finish the Detour first and receive their instructions to the next Pit Stop: they must travel by ferry boat to Vypin, where Phil is waiting next to some fishing boats. Vanessa/Ralph & Brendon/Rachel finish soon after Rachel/Dave. However, Rachel & Dave luck out at the ferry, paying extra money to convince the ferry master depart just before the next team, giving them the time advantage they need to stay in first place.

At "Pack a Box," Art & J.J. have begun to realize they took the wrong Detour and their spirits are waning. To pick up their spirits, J.J. suggests he pretend to be Dave and Art pretend to be Rachel. Here's J.J.'s Dave impression: "Shut up Rachel! You need to hurry up! Just shut your mouth! You're my partner not my wife! Just shut up, you're so weak! Look at you! You don't do anything, Rachel! You're an idiot!" J.J. has officially topped Vanessa for title of most juvenile Racer, season 20 edition.

At the Pit Stop, Rachel & Dave arrive and receive the prize of $10,000 each. Rachel notes if they can win just one more time, they'll tie the Amazing Race record (set in season 13 by brother/sister team Nick/Starr) of seven victories; if they win both of the remaining legs, they'll set a new record.

Brendon & Rachel clock in at second place, Vanessa & Ralph in third. As both teams are at the Pit Stop at the same time, Phil engages their rivalry head-first when he asks if he has to hand out any penalties and Ralph says "I hope so." Phil asks for an explanation and Vanessa relates her opinion that Brendon & Rachel miscounted wheelbarrows. "Why are you starting drama on the mat? Honestly? Why even bring that up? That's not good sportsmanship!" Rachel declares, suggesting she needs someone to define "sportsmanship" for her. Phil wants to know why these two teams are always arguing. "She doesn't like my sequins." Rachel replies. Rachel relates how in the third leg, Vanessa made remarks about Rachel showing her posterior to everyone; which, Vanessa reminds her, is exactly what Rachel was doing. Vanessa tells Rachel she has nothing against her, "except for the craziness in the airport." Ralph asks them to drop the matter and Vanessa apologizes for the "big nose" comment she made in Tanzania. Rachel tries to apologize, but as is her idiom, she's not very good at it: "And I'm sorry for all the comments I've made, but it does offend me when you come to the mat and say that Brendon and I are doing something wrong because we're not trying to do something unfair. We're trying to play the Race as best as we can too." I have to hope Vanessa thought Brendon & Rachel made a mistake in counting, rather than a deliberate error. Whether Brendon & Rachel did something wrong is up for the producers to decide and it seems they didn't. There wouldn't be any drama at the mat if Rachel didn't wring drama from everything...

At the Fast Forward, Bopper & Mark agree to have their heads shaved: or, at least, Bopper will, since Mark has a shaved head. Both men correctly guess Rachel would have refused to have her head shaved. Elsewhere, Art & J.J. finish their Detour and head to the Pit Stop. Bald Bopper is a sight to see; "I tell you what, you don't look as good as me, but you look good, bro." They head to the Pit Stop, declaring now they're "twins."

At the Pit Stop, Phil kids around with Art & J.J., psyching them into thinking they're last; J.J. is brought practically to tears, until Phil admits they're in fourth place. Sadly, this means Bopper & Mark arrive in last place and thus, a lot of life goes out of the Race, along with most of my interest. Still, Bopper & Mark helped make this a pretty good season.

This leaves us with four teams going into the two-hour finale:

  1. Rachel & Dave: Throughout the Race, Rachel has held a fun attitude, always trying to enjoy herself at the tasks, think ahead and stay optimistic. Dave has been short-fused and short-sighted, complaining about her positive attitude and demanding she do better. It's hard to imagine how these two stay together, unless you consider how seldom they're in the same country. I don't dislike them, but I can't bring myself to enjoy them.
  2. Brendon & Rachel: I've begun to realize just how weighted this team is to Rachel as Brendon always defers to her; there's no equality in this relationship and only rarely a sense of fun. Still, they like each other and that's a leg up on Rachel & Dave.
  3. Vanessa & Ralph: Of the couples, these two seem the healthiest in terms of how they speak to each other and work together as a team. They just aren't the most competitive team on the block, which has been repeatedly dragging them down.
  4. Art & J.J.: A very smart team who have made some poor decisions. They focus too much on the meta aspects of the Race. Still, they love the Race and they're cool with each other, making them my favourite team going into the finale.

Next episode: the brawl for it all!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Signs of Sierra Leone

Here are a few signs I noticed while looking about in Sierra Leone; some made me laugh; some made me sad.
Commercial Advertisements:
"Stop! Car Wash"
"If Money nor dae. Welbody nor dae? Dis for change."
"Bon o Bon: Filled With Pleasure and Emotions"
"For Quality and Satisfaction Products"
"Female Condom!!"
Public Service Advertisements:
"A Force for Good Uses Condom. Beware HIV/AIDS is Real"
"Support Your Girl Child's Education"
"Dots Cures TB"
"Malaria is Curable"
"Rape is Punishable in Sierra Leone"
"Education First Motherhood Later"
"Help Protect Your Baby. Get Tested for HIV During Pregnancy"
"When You Educate a Girl You Educate a Nation"
Messages Painted on Vehicles:
"God is Good"
"It's Our Turn"
"No Job No Respect"
"God Bless Islam"
"In God We Trust"
"Allah is Great"
"God in Control"
"Thank You Jesus"
"Trust in Allah. No Food for Infidels"
"Last Supper"
"With God All Things are Possible"
"Prayer is Obligatory"

Saturday, May 12, 2012

In-Flight Movie Round-Up

I watched a number of movies during the many, many hours I spent aboard airplanes journeying back and forth from Calgary to Sierra Leone. Here's how I felt about them:

The Artist (2011): This is great fun for fans of silent films (both of us). The real interest of this film isn't that it's a 21st century silent movie, it's that 21st century filmmakers could relearn the process behind silent movies and capture what made the artform succeed. It isn't a novelty or a pastiche, it's a work of art.

A Bug's Life (1998): I had heard this was a lesser Pixar film and I suppose it does come in below most of their output, but by any other standard, this was a fun diversion.

Eight Men Out (1988): A neat surprise, this tells the story of the 1919 World Series and how eight members of the White Sox were paid off to throw the series; I was most interested to learn how badly run the operation was, as the White Sox kept winning some of their games because even the paid-off members wouldn't let their comrades or their pride down.

Haywire (2012): I lasted about 25 minutes before switching this off; I keep giving director Steven Soderbergh rope, but I'm not very interested in his filmmaking style, which is so subdued I often feel like I'm watching someone's vacation film.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011): This seemed to be trying to restore some elements from the original television show, such as in how the opening credits were constructed. It has some great action pieces, but it's not memorable.

The Muppets (2011): This film walks a strange line, trying to be both sweet and cynical; it's really meant for older Muppets fans which is fine, since I'm in that demographic; I laughed an awful lot at this film, so kudos.

On Dangerous Ground (1952): A very atypical film noir; it begins modestly enough with a tough city cop who beats up criminals and witnesses, but then he's sent into a snowy rural community to catch a killer, taking this outside the usual noir culture. What's fascinating is how the cop is forced to become a better man through circumstances he can't control - because people expect more of him, he has to transform his behaviour for their sake.

Top Hat (1935): I've never been very interested in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers ouvre and I can recall walking out on my mother and sister when they would put this movie on. However, since having seen Rogers in Stage Door and Bachelor Mother I was interested to see more of her work. It's got a very slight plot about mistaken identities, but many excuses are found for dance scenes, which is why it exists, after all.

War Horse (2011): Boy, having read MightyGodKing's "Too Much Horse", this movie was fairly ruined for me. Even taking MGK's mockery aside, this was just a retelling of National Velvet, only not as charming or believeable. I fell asleep during it and awoke grateful.

The Woman in Black (2012): I was interested to see what this attempted revival of the Hammer horror films would be like, but I don't think this is them putting their best foot forward; it's not lurid enough for Hammer devotees. For the rest of us, it's just another rehash of Turn of the Screw; go watch the Innocents or the Others instead.

Friday, May 11, 2012

On being Poto

Several months ago, Erica told me a few items about her visit to Sierra Leone in 2011. "People would see us and call out 'White man! White man!' They would call me a 'white man' too."

The precise term was "Poto" (or "Porto"). I asked Vince what people called him, as he's Asian-Canadian. "They call me Poto." This tickled my fancy. "Really? So we're both a couple of Poto!" Many times following this I would find excuses to compare myself to Vince. "Hey man, I understand, I'm Poto too."

Our driver Soulay would ferry us about an hour and a half each day to the work site where the school was being raised up. As we passed out of Freetown and into the rural areas, our presence would draw the occasional stares from adults, but "Poto" was usually exclaimed by the children. As we drove into the village of Waterloo where the school was being built, the amount of children would intensify. All around us we would hear: "A Poto! A Poto! A Poto!" and a flurry of tiny hands waving at us. Some of the children would race to follow us, calling out as they ran. Seeing other white people was so rare in Sierra Leone that we couldn't help ourseleves: "A Poto! A Poto!" we'd cry from our car when we spotted other outsiders.

Wheels were turning inside the head of Jay, Erica's husband. "Soulay," he asked one afternoon, "how do I say 'one of you' to the children?" Soulay is old by Sierra Leone standards (perhaps 50?) and usually stone-faced, but he had his moments of levity and would often drop his guard around Jay. "Unibe." was Soulay's response. "That means 'black man'?" Jay confirmed. "Yes." Soulay answered.

As the next collection of children waved at our car, crying out "a Poto!" Jay waved back: "Honeybee!" he called. "Sweetie, I don't think you're saying it right." Erica cautioned. "Honeybee!" Jay cried. "Look, it stops them in their tracks! They don't know what to think!" Behind the wheel, Soulay was practically chuckling.

In the days which followed, Jay's cry of "Honeybee!" became a constant refrain (I think he was trying to say "Unibe" and sometimes succeeded). Even Soulay would mimic Jay's "Honeybee!" I occasionally joined in; greeting the children was the best part of the 1.5 hour drive we had to make twice each day.

My favourite task on the work site was to make bricks; this involved mixing together pans of sand with a bag of cement and a measure of water (more art than science). I made a few attempts to help the workers mix the contents, but I wasn't very good at it and usually stepped back to let the professionals manage it. Once the mix was ready, we would fill a rectangular steel box with mix and lay it upside down on the ground, much like building a sand castle. Hundreds of these bricks would be made each day.

I believe it was on our fifth day that I found myself making bricks alone; although the workers were present, ready with shovels to fill up my brick mold, the other 10 members of my team were elsewhere, either taking a water break or performing other tasks. I never liked going on break when I was the only person making bricks, so I kept going. Two children were seated nearby, watching me; we always drew audiences on the site. "Hello Poto," one ventured. "Hello Unibe," I replied.

A short time later, I noticed a stranger wandering through the site. He clearly didn't belong; unlike the workers, who wore dirty, tattered t-shirts and shorts, he wore good slacks and a clean white long-sleeved shirt. He was, I would learn, one of the teachers from the school for whom we were building this structure.

As he passed nearby, he addressed me: "Thank you, Poto." He moved on before I could stammer out my own grateful response.

That's what "Poto" means to me.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bronzed and bearded

"Are you keeping the beard?" Jay asked. It was the fourth morning since our 11-person team had arrived in Sierra Leone and Jay was the first to comment on my lack of grooming.

"While I'm in Sierra Leone, yes," I answered, "but I intend to shave at least most of it off before we leave."

Jay shook his head. "Don't do it, man. It looks good on you!"

As I type this post at home in Calgary, two hours after my return, I still haven't shaven.

Our project in Sierra Leone was to build a school, foundation and all. I'm not the most physically able person for such work, but I toiled every day with the rest of the team. With the temperature often in the 30s (40s, counting humidity), I was applying sun screen every day to protect myself.

The trip was nearly over before anyone asked me about the sun screen. On our second last day of construction, Braydon inquired about borrowing mine and I explained I was wearing a sweat/water resistant SPF 60 sun screen. At this, Joel chimed in: "You've been wearing SPF 60 the whole time? And you still got a tan?"

And he was right. Although in the early days of the trip the sun didn't seem to affect me at all, by the second week I was clearly browning. And so I am now.

I knew I would be in the sun, but I did not plan to tan; I knew I would forgo shaving for a while but did not plan to wear a beard. Like so many things in Africa, you learn to accept the way things are.

More to follow...