The long road (air route) home

I’m home, and it feels good. Here’s the day of travel that got me back to Southern California:

Shuttle to Athens Airport: My driver, provided by the games GOC, arrived 15 minutes early. Goodbyes were said to my team members, now new friends, and I loaded the car with my bags. My driver (I can’t recall her name) was a nursing student, just graduated. She signed up to volunteer for the games as part of the Medical team, but was assigned to be a driver (in the Transportation Services) instead. Which is good, as she really knew the streets of Athens. To avoid traffic, we jetted through side streets and back alleys. At one point, she even knocked the mirror off of a parked car as we flew down a narrow street.

Flight 1: Athens to Toronto. This was about 10 hrs, 45 minutes of blah. I dozed off and on, watched most of the in flight movies (Date Night, Beastly, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules, The A-Team, Win-Win). It was a crowded plane, including all of SO Team Canada coaches and athletes. Thankfully, the flight was uneventful too. Just long. And the haze I was in for most of yesterday allowed me to ignore a lot of things.

My 2hr layover, in Toronto, was spent going through customs three different times. Apparently, they only booked my luggage to Toronto (not all the way through to LA as they should have). I didn’t find this out until after I was in line for US customs. I then had to clear Canadian customs, get my bag, check back into my flight, clear US customs, clear security, then board the plane. Got in a good workout and became very familiar with the terminal.

Flight 2: Toronto to Los Angeles: I was dead tired. It didn’t help that, when it became a tad turbulent, the flight attendant spilled a pitcher of water onto my lap. Understanding that it wasn’t his fault (it was very turbulent at that time), I still snapped at him. The head flight attendant came over to offer me a free drink (alcoholic), but I didn’t want anything from any of them. I was tired. Again, I dozed off an on, and before I knew it the plane had landed.

Michelle met me in baggage claim, and we promptly headed to In-N-Out for a long awaited burger (oh so good). Then to home, where I fully appreciated a long hot shower (in my own home), and a long, good night’s sleep (in my own bed).

Feels good to be home.

Athens, days 11, 12 & 13: What day is it?

Somewhere along the line I stopped keeping track of the date and time The only reason I still wear my watch is to cover up the insane watch tan on my wrist. Also, there’s no way I could ever cheat on my wife by hiding my wedding ring, as I think you can see my ring tan line from space. Not that I would even think to attempt something like that to begin with.

There’s not a lot of (new) things to report from the past few days. It’s still hot here. There’s still a lot of walking around the venues. The food is still very good (Reuben has a knack for choosing really good places to eat). My hotel room bed still has the consistency equivalent to a large marble slab.

Speaking of my bed: at 4:30 AM, yesterday, I made the mistake of rolling over to the middle of it. Now, know that my bed is actually two twin beds, on wheels, pushed together. I’ll let you imaginations complete the rest of the story, but as I told everyone, it was quite difficult to go back to sleep after that.

They like their starch over here. The bed sheets are like sandpaper. My laundry has been coming back with my t-shirts like cardboard. When I put them on, I feel like I’m wearing paper.

At this stage in the Games (Closing Ceremonies are on Monday), there aren’t a whole lot of issues left to troubleshoot. There has been a lot of standing around, floating from venue to venue, most times not even touching a GMS computer at all. There are a lot of other issues that we’ve faced, of which I don’t want to go into detail o this site. It’s been a challenge, and the seasoned team members are going crazy with all of the free time we’re left with (it’s not supposed to be this slow for us).

Yesterday (day 13), I played “bodyguard” for Apryl. It was her last day (she flys home this morning), and Reuben gave her the day off to go sightseeing, shopping, etc. To make sure she wasn’t floating through this (crazy) city alone, I went with her. After seeking out some people she wanted to catch up with, we headed into Jumbo. Jumbo is a cross between Toys R Us and Ikea, where the top floor is all toys and the bottom floor is all home goods (weird). After she loaded up on gifts for her 2-yr old daughter, we hopped onto the Metro to Plaka. Plaka is a neighborhood made up of narrow streets and a ton of shops selling a million different things. Very neat to wander through there.

I’m making a list of things that I want to do as soon as I get home. When I read through it, it’s definitely a sign that I am getting a little homesick. Mostly? I miss my bed, my own shower, and my wife. Let me rephrase: I miss my wife, my bed, and my own shower.

I’ve taken the lazy way out, so you’re stuck with my camera phone pics for this post. It’s hard to keep shooting pictures when I keep going to the same venues and don’t necessarily see anything new.

Athens, Days 9 & 10:

Last night, I reached a point of pure lazy. As soon as I sat down in the hotel lobby, after a long day at the OAKA venue, I simply did not want to move from the chair. Some of it was being tired physically, but I later realized that it was mostly mental exhaustion. While I’m having a really fun time here, I have been going non-stop for a few months. We completed our Southern Ca Summer Games right before I left. Before that there were many grant reports and projects that I was working (hard) to complete. Before that there was a lot of field support I needed to provide to our Regional staff. It’s just been busy, and it seemed to all catch up with me.

This morning, I felt much better. I, very surprisingly, got a good night’s sleep. The hotel bed is hard as a rock. When I first arrived, I tossed my backpack onto the bed. Usually, when I do that, I see the backpack bounce a little. On this bed, not so much. I can’t wait until I get into my own bed at home.

As I mentioned, I spent day 9 at OAKA, providing some standby support for powerlifting and basketball. There were only a few questions/troubleshooting scenarios that came up. Nothing major which, as we keep trying to remind ourselves, is actually a good thing. It means things are running pretty well. But, it also makes for a very boring time sitting around a venue and waiting to be sought out for help

I was able to catch up with a Southern Ca coworker, Bill, who is here as part of SO Team USA. We swapped “war stories” around the cheese sandwiches (remember from day 1?), athletes, GOC and more. It was good to see him. I also ran into Kelly K, who works for SO Wisconsin and was one of Michelle’s bridesmaids in our wedding. Very fun to catch up with her too. She is here working public relations for SO Team USA.

There is a girl, that works the powerlifting venue, who looks like Shakira (the singer). Her actual name is Alexandra, but we’ve (internally) named her Shakira. Yesterday, I got names mixed up, and called her Shakira to her face. Would you expect anything else? Luckily, she didn’t catch on. At least, I don’t think she did.

The protests and riots got really bad. A budget measure was passed, that set off the general public. There were fires in the streets and riot police everywhere. Thankfully, we’re safe. Our hotel is a few miles away from the main activity, and the riots seem to be moving away from where we are. There is a constant stream of sirens moving down out street (which was closed for a little bit last night). We’re expecting to see more of them throughout the week. Special Olympics World Games is beginning to be blamed for financial woes too, as the public seems to be very unhappy with the amount of government money behind this event. Needless to say, we’re being very careful.

Today, day 10, I made my way back out to Hellinikon to check in with the venues out there (football, cycling, softball, handball and rhythmic gymnastics. It was neat to see all of the other sports (I really liked the way cycling was setup). Most of the time was spent indoors, watching the rhythmic gymnastics. Yes, a little boring hearing the same songs, and seeing the same routines, over and over again, but still inspiring to see the athletes at work.

I met a photographer, hired by Specia Olympics, to cover the World Games. We swapped a few stories and I learned more about his day job (shooting for the European press while stationed in China). It was nice having a conversation with a photographer where equipment brands, the latest and greatest gear, and (equipment) pissing matches don’t come up. Just talking pure photography was refreshing.

The last two dinners were spent at Pizza Roma, just a little walk from our hotel. It’s pretty good pizza (not NYC good, but good enough to remind us of home). I like the place because it’s very low key, and I’m finding that at this point of the trip, I like my evenings to be as low key as possible.

That’s about it for the past two days. There are some riots again this evening, stranding two of our team members at a venue that is on lockdown, but for the most part everyone else related to SO is safe. Now, we’re all just hoping that they don’t choose to riot/protest on Tuesday, when all of our flights are supposed to take us home. That would suck.

But, we’ll cross that bridge in a few days. For now we will see these games through. Tomorrow looks like I’ll be back at powerlifting. I’ll try not to call Alexandra, “Shakira”, but I can’t make any promises.

Athens, Day 8: Ventured to another venue: Hellinikon

Today’s “General Protest” has public transportation closed throughout the city. The Metro (subway) did remain open for the sake of the Games, but they were extremely busy as they covered the lack of buses running through the streets. Thankfully, taxis were still running (and making major money in doing so). Even more thankfully, the Special Olympics shuttle system was still running. It’s a series of chartered buses that run constant routes from venue to venue. It’s there for fans, volunteers, VIPs and guests, and officials. The shuttles are very comfortable, air conditioned carriages that move directly to the venues, with no additional stops or crowds. Why we didn’t use this system at the beginning of the week (instead of the Metro) is beyond me.

The protest is supposed to carry through tomorrow too, but as long as we have those shuttles, there is no concern for any major effects on the Games. Though, this evening there is a steady stream of sirens and heavy traffic moving past our hotel. I can only imagine how crazy it is near Parliament right now

Hellinikon: this is the venue that I should have went to the first few days. It’s located at the beach! The beach, complete with an absolutely gorgeous ocean view, picturesque clouds, and cool sea air. Ahh, felt a little like home.

Hellinikon is the site of gymnastics, badminton, handball, football (soccer), softball, Young Athletes and MATP programs. Yeah, a lot going on down there. Half of the team has been assigned here for the week, so there was no need for me to come down, but it was a venue I wanted to see, and today’s schedule was casual enough to allow it.

My new favorite sport? Handball. I had never seen it in person until today, and I love it. It’s a cross between soccer and basketball (though you can’t use your feet). There’s a ton of strategy involved in the games, and the athleticism is quite something to watch. Which, as I’ve told you before, our athletes are amazing. I watched a few matches; the game between Germany and Kenya was fast paced and down to the last minute. So much fun!

Badminton was entertaining, but we spent most of the time watching a very well organized artistic gymnastics competition. Again, I’m thoroughly impressed simply by seeing athletes from all over the world in one location. And to watch them compete with one another, and to watch their coaches interact with the athletes and other countries’ coaches, was great.

A very touching moment: one of the female gymnasts is deaf, and the announcer took a moment to teach the crowd how to “applaud” using sign language so that she could appreciate it. And from that point on, after each of her routines, the whole crowd signed their applause. I cannot begin to describe the smile on her face.

The day ended with an absolutely gorgeous scene. As our shuttle was pulling away from Hellinikon, the sun’s rays were cascading through the clouds in the sky, casting rays right over the venue and the surrounding beaches. Took my breath away. But, and I apologize, I didn’t take any pictures. Edie (Alaska) asked me why, to which i could only reply “some things you just have to appreciate without a camera”. And I’m very glad I did.

It’s fun not obsessing over pictures while I’m here. There are about 100 shots that I passed on, today, simply because I opted to just relax and enjoy what was happening rather than fuss with a camera. But, as you can see above, I did get my picture of the US Embassy (taken from our shuttle as it drove by). I can’t remember if I told this story on the blog, but on my first day here I walked past the embassy. Seeing it, I stopped to take a photo. I was immediately confronted by two very well armed security guards, letting me know that I could not photograph the building. I pointed out some people across the street, taking photographs of the same buiding at that very moment, only to be told that it was okay to shoot from there, but not from the sidewalk right in front (where we were). Ridiculous. But who am I to argue with two guys holding sub-machine guns?

Tomorrow I head back to OAKA to check in with the venues there (athletics, aquatics, basketball, tennis, volleyball and powerlifting) Though, if it’s anything like the past few days, I expect it to be another quiet and easy day. I want to spend some more time at tennis. Mattel is also conducting a Young Athletes exhibition up there, and I really want to see it.

Athens, Day 7: what is the Greek tradition for birthday?

I’m not sure, but mine was spent touring some of the sport venues at OAKA (site of athletics, aquatics, basketball, tennis, powerlifting and volleyball). It was another fun day where I had the opportunity to see our athletes in action. There’s something really cool about watching the 800M race (athletics), with each of the eight lanes filled with an athlete from a different country. There’s something really cool about watching a match (volleyball) between Russia and India. There’s something really cool about watching athletes from Tapei hang out with athletes from Australia.

The team is constantly reminding me that this World Games is different from the others in that, with Athens 2011, we have a lot more free time (while roaming from venue to venue, making sure they’re running without issue). Usually, they tell me, they’re all busy – each one stationed at a venue or two – actually operating GMS. But, because the Athens 2011 has plenty of (paid) GMS operators, our roles are reduced to “observe and support”.

This works out in my favor because I have a lot of opportunities to spend time enjoying the event, and getting to know each of the team members, all of whom are amazing, fun people. I love hearing the stories from how they were first chosen to join the team, how they survived the scariest/busiest World or National Games they worked, and recounts of all of the crazy incidents they’ve experienced through the years. And then, it’s even more interesting to learn about their personal lives, how they met their spouse, how they adopted their daughter, the crazy things they see on the streets while working for the Ireland Post, and how they are busy making wedding plans for the end of July.

Day before yesterday, I spent time with Patrick (from Ireland). The guy had me laughing the whole time, and I swear I had picked up a slight Irish accent by the end of the day It’s what happens when you listen to him for at least half a day. This afternoon, I was paired with Apryl (Alabama) and learned that “feisty” with a southern accent is very entertaining. She is a very dynamic, good-hearted human being, a great mother of an adopted young girl, and a teacher that any kid would be lucky to have. Also, Apryl is one of only two people that I know who requires a jacket when the weather is in the mid-80s. The other being my wife.

Kim (Nebraska) and Johnneice (THE Bahamas) contribute with sweet stories from home. Kim and her husband are the quintessential, very much in love, married couple, and her stories are sweet and real. Johnneice is prepping for a wedding, yet is the calmest bride to be that I have ever known. It must be the island mentality (which I need to find a way to adopt). Tim’s (New Zealand) complete dedication and no nonsense, 100% common sense, approach to things is something I completely respect. Shawn (Trinidad) provides an easy going (again with the island mentality), yet highly intelligent perspective on life. Brooke (Virginia) gives us that blunt, tell it like it is perspective, but will laugh it off, and then some, in the blink of an eye.

Mike, Melissa, and Bill work for Bespoke (the company behind GMS). Mike’s passion for what we’re doing is extremely admirable. He’s not only here to look out for the team, but his genuine caring about the event and the athletes is the drive behind how he accomplishes so much, and with so much respect from all of us. Melissa and Bill are quick, extremely intelligent people who provide us with tremendous support and knowledge.

All in all, wow. I’m absolutely privileged to be a part of this. And, if this were to not only be my first but my only time with this group? It still ranks as one of my favorite experiences.

And, coincidentally, makes for a great birthday present.

Athens, Day 6: The newbie sat in the wrong chair!

It’s pretty crazy when I realize that I’ve been here for a week. It’s even crazier when I realize that I have another week to go. The world of Special Olympics centers upon the “hurry up and wait” lifestyle. There are days that fly by, and days that drag on and on. And within each of those days, you may alternate between busy and dead in the water phases too.

I’m learning a lot, which was the main reason I came to work this World Games. And, to take things a little deeper, I think I’m finding some clarity in a lot of aspects of my life (both work and home). It helps seeing other lifestyles, not just from our Greek counterparts, but in some of the coaches and athletes from other countries. I remember experiencing this type of clarity a few years ago, when I was in London. And the only way that I can sum it up (for purposes of the blog) is by attributing it to becoming more aware of the global picture. In other words, we all face similar issues. We all have sets of unique issues. But, no one is alone. We’re all very much a part of one another, and I experience a great sense of peace when I realize that.

Assigned to Games HQ, I suspected it would be a very slow day holed up inside our windowless room. But, in my attempt to make the best of it, I spent the time really delving into GMS v6 to gain a better understanding of the deeper goings on. Basically, I messed around in the program all day, trying various things and learning as I went. I did have a few troubleshooting opportunities, but nothing major to report.

I stole Reuben’s chair. Reuben is the leader of this group (works for SOI in charge of GMS, amongst other things). When we first arrived in Games HQ, he set his bags on the table and went out. I chose a seat to settle into. His seat. And, I chose this seat for the same reasons I choose my seat in our (Southern Ca) own Games HQ: 1) in a position where I can see people come in through the door, but not in a position where they would come up to me first, and 2) not right in front of the air conditioning vent, but close enough to still reap the rewards. Taking Reuben’s seat (assigned seating, who knew?), and I paid for it with the pick on the newbie teasing for the rest of the day.

The unplanned reward (punishment?) for stealing his seat is that tomorrow, I’m being sent out of Games HQ, back out into the venues.

Competition began today, and from what I’ve heard, some venues started with very little to no issues while others had some challenges. It’s neat to hear about the different experiences and stories, relayed by the other committee members, when we gather in the hotel lobby/bar at the end of the day. I love being a part of a huge event like this, where there are so many things happening on a very big scale. There’s always something to take in and appreciate.

There are some protests, happening at Parliament, causing some traffic issues. There’s also a threatened strike planned for Tues and Wed, which would should down all public transportation in the city. This not only affects us getting to venues, but athletes, coaches, and event volunteers as well. It’s pretty likely that the shutdown will happen, as there are many posters warning the public about it. There’s no official word of what we (Special Olympics) are going to do if/when it happens. Another adventure awaits.

I’m really enjoying myself, but I do miss Michelle, my family and friends. I’ve also been craving avocado like crazy (so used to eating one every day, and I can’t find them in any of the restaurants over here). Still very much loving the french fries served inside of sandwiches over here. Add an avocado to a gyros pita, with french fries in it, and you have the perfect lunch.

And with that, I’m turning in for the night to dream about that perfect sandwich.