Saturday, August 16, 2008

Don't mess with Canadian women

With three medals (one being a gold) Canada has now wrestled its way to 25th place in the medal standings at the Summer Olympics. In doing so, we have past the likes of Tajikistan, Trinidad and Tobago, and Estonia. Don't mess with Canadian women! Two of the medals, including the gold, were in women's wrestling. I guess there's some truth to those inane t-shirts and hats that say, "Canadian girls kick ass!"

After my first post lamenting that the Olympic powerhouse of Togo had more medals than Canada, one person commented that by October no one will remember or care about the Canadian medal count. True enough. But how mediocre. How Canadian.

The message that sends is don't pursue excellence, because no one will remember in a few months time. Imagine if we carried that same attitude in our professional lives. Don't bother working hard at work, because by October no one will remember. Mediocrity rules!

What many people fail to see is that the Olympics is much more than an expensive sporting event. There is nothing like it in the world. More than 200 nations are represented at the Games. That's more than sit at the United Nations.

And if we look beyond the competitions themselves, we have much to learn from the Olympics and Olympians themselves. Discipline. Determination. Effort. Dedication. These are all words that describe what it takes to become an Olympic competitor.

Think for a moment the kind of a society we could create if each of us pursued the same kind of discipline and commitment in our professional and personal lives, as Olympians do in pursuit of sport.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Beaten by the likes of Togo!

The Summer Olympics are five days old, and if they were to end today, Canada would finish with no medals. The Olympics aren’t over today, and we’ve been told that our medal chances come later in the Games, but so far we’ve been trumped by the likes of North Korea, Zimbabwe, Kyrgyzstan, and Togo.

The Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (note to reader: anytime a country uses the word Democratic in their name, they’re far from democratic) can hardly feed itself yet the country has seven medals. Kyrgyzstan, which means inflammation of the knee joint, fought to win two medals in Greco-Roman wrestling. A funny sight that would be, with toga-wearing men wrestling each other on a sticky mat. Zimbabwe, where inflation hit a staggering 100,000% this past year, put its eggs in one watery basket as swimmer Kirsty Coventry won all three medals for this once prosperous nation. And Togo (no, I didn’t say Toga)? If you’re not from West Africa, raise your hand if you know anything about Togo. Thought so.

At its widest, Togo is a 160 km sliver of a piece-of-pie in West Africa. Wedged next to the equally well-known country of Benin and Ghana, it was once known as Togoland, not to be confused with Legoland, and gained independence in 1960. Not to be outdone by its other African cousins, General Gnassingbé Eyadéma ruled Togo with an iron fist for the better part of four decades.

There are about five million Togolese, whose life expectancy is approximately 60 years. Togo shares one similarity with Canada, as both have made just one appearance at Soccer’s World Cup. For Canada that distinction came in 1986, while Togo qualified in 2006. Although the African country has one up on Canada having at least scored one goal in its three World Cup games.

So, the next time you find yourself at a cocktail party and someone starts talking about Benjamin Boukpeti, the Togolese kayaker that won his country’s first Olympic medal, you can thank me for providing you with all this useful information sure to impress.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A story behind every photograph

originally written in January 2007

The other day I picked up the newspaper, and six of the women allegedly murdered by Robert Pickton stared back at me. Only one was smiling. A hint that there once was something in life worth smiling about. The others looked wan. And old beyond their years. And devoid of spirit, as if their lives had been taken from them long before their horrific deaths. I suppose that’s what a life of drugs and prostitution does to someone.

But what lay behind these haunting faces? Surely their lives weren’t always like this. I was reminded of a similar photo I saw in the newspaper about 15 years ago. It was of a childhood friend, Vicki, who had been murdered. Her body was found in a dumpster in a Vancouver alley. She too had fallen into a miserable life of drugs and prostitution.

When I recall that picture of Vicki, it looked as if someone had stolen her spirit. She looked helpless and pathetic. It would have been easy for people to dismiss her as another drug addicted prostitute. I’m sure many did. But it troubled me that this was the last image the world saw of her. It wasn’t always this way.

I first met Vicki in grade two, where we both grew up in Victoria. I can’t remember how our friendship developed. We both had the same boundless energy, and having three sisters, maybe she saw in me the brother she never had. Whatever the case, we were inseparable. She was a beautiful, precocious girl, with long blondish hair. Vicki spent many evenings at our home for dinner, and it seemed that every summer day we were together--whether swimming at the local pool, or joining our family for camping trips and other vacations. In our backyard was a large tree that towered above our house. We would often climb to the top, where we had an expansive view of the city. I can’t remember what we talked about, but we would stay up there for what seemed like hours.

Vicki was a good student. In fact, I was always envious, when we would compare grades. She enjoyed sports, and excelled at gymnastics and cross-country running. And she swam miles ahead of me in swimming lessons. Mind you, her competitive nature and endless energy often landed her in the Emergency department. Whether a broken arm after falling from a tree, finger fractures, or a bloodied nose after taking a baseball in the face, she was always full of heart and enjoyed everything life had to offer. She took great pride in helping people, and participated in many volunteer activities as a Girl Guide.

After grade seven our lives went separate ways. We went to different high schools, and didn’t keep in touch. I did learn that she became pregnant while still in school. How difficult it must have been to be a mother at such a young age. Knowing her determined character, it wasn’t a surprise when I found out she tried finishing her education at an alternate school. I didn’t hear of her again until the night her mother called to share the tragic news of her death. Some might say that an untimely death was inevitable because of her destructive lifestyle. Maybe so. But despite her shortcomings, Vicki began life full of promise, much like I imagine the six women pictured in the newspaper.

Maybe it’s a good thing that our lives took different paths. That way I have a mind full of wonderful memories to carry with me. Thankfully, childhood innocently protects us from the darkness that exists in this world. What I’m left with are recollections of laughter and two kids being silly together. It makes me smile to think of those days so long ago. I wonder if in her darkest days, Vicki looked back on our young days and smiled too.

I run my hands across the six pictures. Like most people I know nothing of their lives, but if they were anything like my friend, then their lives were more than a single, sad image placed on the front of newspaper. Long before drugs ate away at them, and long before someone so cruelly ended their lives, I hope there was a time of innocence when as a child they laughed and lived life without a care for the future. And I hope someone out there has a mind full of wonderful memories like I do.

Friday, August 1, 2008

My first trip to the spa

Hainan Island sits seductively in the South China Sea. Far from the frenetic pace of Shanghai, or Hong Kong, or Beijing, the island is China’s natural paradise. But it wasn’t always this way. Centuries ago, the island was a penal colony for those who fell out of favour with the country’s rulers. Then, it was known as the doorway to hell.

I stepped off the plane at Sanya’s Phoenix Airport, and was overwhelmed by the fresh, tropical air. The dark of evening had cloaked the beautiful surroundings, as our driver made the 40-minute drive to our hotel at Yalong Bay, the southernmost point in China. With its eight kilometres of golden sand, Yalong Bay is reputed to be Sanya’s best stretch of beach. It is here that one will find some of the island’s best hotels. I was on a press trip and stayed at the newly opened Sanya Marriott Resort and Spa. With its welcoming, open-air lobby, the hotel is beautiful, stunning, and restful. The view didn’t disappoint when I woke the first morning and opened my curtains to the sparkling waters of the South China Sea.

One of the hotel’s managers asked if I would like to try a spa treatment. A spa treatment? It sounded so clinical. I had never been to a spa, but I would be foolish to say no. I was then asked what kind of treatment I would like. I hesitated for a moment. She must have sensed that I was a spa virgin. “Maybe you would like the head to toe treatment?” Maybe I would.

I showed up for my appointment, and was overcome by a sense of serenity the moment I walked into the spa’s reception area. After giving my name, I was asked if I would like the coffee or honey-mango body polish. It was like my dentist asking if I wanted peppermint or wild berry flavoured fluoride. I don’t drink coffee, so I chose the honey-mango. Body polish? Who would have thought?

I was shown to one of the stand-alone pavilions, which house the spa’s16 treatment rooms. Inside, soothing music filled the room. I could hear the trickle of water from a small fountain, while a petite woman was preparing the room. She handed me a plush, white towel, and what looked to me like a thin head covering that a surgeon would wear. I went into the washroom and undressed. Unsure of what this extra garment was, I put it on my head, wrapped the towel around the lower portion of my body, and walked out.

I must have looked foolish, but to her credit, the spa lady didn’t laugh, although I’m sure I saw her suppressing a smile. Her English was about as good as my Chinese, so she gestured that the thing I had put on my head was really disposable underwear. I picked my ego up off the floor, took the underwear off my head and returned to the change room, where I tried to squeeze into something that had been made for small Asian women.

Once everything was in order, I sat in a chair and dipped my feet in a bowl of warm water. But it wasn’t just any bowl of water. I would later learn that my feet were soaking in Qi Water. Apparently, the spa has harnessed the healing forces of water by installing specially designed vivifiers, which revitalize and restructure the water in a natural way. Qi Water is supposed to stimulate detoxification, improve skin disorders, stimulate the immune system, improve blood circulation, and enhance energy levels.

With my feet suitably energized by the fancy water, I climbed up onto the massage table. The woman that had just been entertained by my clothing foible was probably wondering how a bald guy could be so hairy. I often wonder that myself. She started massaging my feet and lower legs. In an instant, 35 years of wear started to rub away. With trained precision, she held the towel in place, as I turned onto my stomach. I closed my eyes and could hear the honey-mango polish being mixed in a small, wooden bowl. The warm, sticky concoction was brushed onto my shoulders and back and legs. And then like my grandmother might have done when making bread, she started kneading my body. Once my pores had absorbed the sweet smelling polish, I returned to the change room and showered it off. Sensing that the underwear didn’t fit well the first time, I wasn’t offered a second pair.

One after another, warm, moist towels were placed on my face. Before my treatment began, I was asked if I would like the anti-aging, or the wrinkle reducing facial. Who wouldn’t want to be young forever? I chose the anti-aging tonic, which was now being liberally applied to my face. Outside, I could hear the palm trees waving in the warmth of the late afternoon. Several times I caught myself falling asleep, and thought that this pleasing experience would surely end soon. But there was more. After the “Thirty-five forever” cream had soaked deep into my face, more warm towels were used. And then again my arms, and torso, and legs were massaged.

Finally my treatment was over. I peeled myself off the table, rubbed my hands across my arms, and was sure that my skin looked and felt a lot better than when I had come in. Feeling refreshed, I walked out of the pavilion and was surprised that the sun had already set. I looked at my watch and was amazed that I had just experienced three hours of pampered bliss.

I still don’t know the difference between a facial flash and a moisture surge facial or a cucumber body mask and a detoxifying body wrap, but I did learn that underwear shouldn’t be worn on one’s head.

Sanya Mariott Resort and Spa