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The Biggest Challenge -- Documenting the CASKE 2000 Expedition from Central America

Copyright 1999 -- text by Jean-Philippe Soule

An educational expedition today is comprised of more than a mere sport accomplishment in foreign land. It requires a thorough and attractive documentation of a project combining challenge, and education. It also means using the best media available in order to market it. The daunting task of documenting an expedition isn’t enough any more. Fame seems to make the difference between the people who will touch others and those who won’t.

Rock-Climbing gained fame as a sport when French climber Patrick Edlinger produced the first adventure movie "La vie au bout des doigts". Impressive shots of a few solo routes became his path to world renown. Edlinger later traveled to the United States to climb in front of the cameras and French reporters what was, at the time, called impossible. Meanwhile, his ex-climbing partner Patrick Berrault was challenging the most technical climbs in France. Considered the best climber of his time, Berrault was a purist. He believed climbing to be an art and a form of meditation. He shied away from the cameras and competitions and his name remained unheard of outside the French climbing communities.

Most of the time recognition is arbitrary, a haphazard blend of chance, politics, and economics. And yes, sometimes it just seems unfair that the average professional basketball player will be better known and paid than the best athletes in some non-publicized extreme sports. The same is true for expeditions and adventures. Sadly, without media recognition there is no sponsorship or funding, and without sponsorship and money it is next to impossible to stage a large-scale expedition.

For years I’ve lead expeditions or gone on solo treks to break record times without ever telling anybody. Fourteen years ago I was among the first to descend some of the most challenging canyons in the French Basque country. Today this sport is barely starting to enter the States. In the winter of 1997-98, my expedition partner Luke Shullenberger and I were probably the first to race down the snowy beaches of Hokkaido, Japan on skis pulled by five square meter kites during winter storms. Like Patrick Berrault, we only thought about the beauty of the sport, not of fame or publicity to be gained from it.

When I started to plan the CASKE 2000 expedition the sport, the challenge and the adventure were only part of the project. I designed the expedition with two main goals in mind, to document the lifestyles of Indigenous peoples in Central America, and to send a simple message. I hope to sensitize people as to the importance and the beauty of cultures and lands that are threatened by development, and over-consumption.

I was inspired as a child by various authors including Jack London and Frison Roche, and other people such as Jacques Cousteau. They all had one thing in common. They saw something special in life, lived it fully, and shared their experiences with others. I believe it is my turn to share the beauty that I see in life. I hope to inspire others the same way my childhood heroes moved me, and help people to believe that they can accomplish what they set out to do.

In order to realize my goals a little bit of fame would help tremendously. Publicity is the only way to get the message out. The problem is that fame comes predominantly to people participating in the trendy activities. We’re not sailing a million-dollar racing yacht around the world or climbing Mount Everest. We’re paddling rivers in unknown rainforests to meet indigenous peoples forgotten by the rest of the world. It was during the earliest stages of planning for the expedition that I realized that I had to come up with a way to tie my beliefs into some extreme and trendy adventure. This is how I decided to sea kayak Central America.

It was during my last year of preparation, that Luke Shullenberger joined me. He loved the idea, but did not realize then the amount of work it would involve. We spent our last year in Japan working five to ten hours daily in addition to our full time jobs. We researched information, equipment, contacts, sponsors, media coverage and more. Then, in April 1998, we quit our jobs and flew to Thailand for serious training. At that point we still had absolutely no experience sea kayaking and only had three months to turn ignorance into mastery. In addition to our kayak training, we were encouraged to swim one to two miles daily in the open sea for the sake of conditioning and safety in case we were to loose our kayaks far from the coast. We then spent the remaining three months before our official departure date in the United States looking for sponsorship and media coverage while working on our website.

Reality was tough to accept. However much we believed in our project and its educational mission, we were not Jon Krakauer or Peter Hillary. Even the paddling magazines showed little interest in our project. We struggled to pull in a dozen small sponsors, which provided us with less than twenty percent of the equipment we needed. The total duration of the expedition was an expected at six months of preparation and training, two and half years of expedition and a year and half to write three books and produce a high quality slide show and CD ROM. That’s five years without a salary. Even if we lived cheaply and received most of our equipment from sponsors, we estimated that we would need $100,000.00.

We started the expedition without it and now, after a year, we are coming close to the red zone. Finding sponsorship and media coverage becomes more important every month. While trying to make contacts had proven to be frustrating before our departure, can you imagine how difficult it is to do while paddling through some of the most remote areas of Central America? Disappointed by our lack of success in the area I began to focus more on documenting our adventure, as well as the cultural and natural beauty of the lands we’re paddling through. I put the magazines aside and gave priority to my website, but there too I was put to a test. After the first six months of hard work and sleepless nights, the site was only recording a hundred visitors a month. It was demoralizing, but I believed it remained the best and most important way to document what CASKE 2000 is all about.

Each time we paddle between two main points, the focus is on the expedition. Sometimes we fight big storms, sometimes the heat, and most of the time the bugs. We experience nature at its best and its worst and try to adapt as best we can. Behind the scenes, there is much work that goes into producing the website as we move along. We take notes and wait to be in town to do the computer work. In Baja, towns were far apart, so we computed on deserted beaches powered by solar panels. Our journals describe well the challenges of the expedition. Where they fail is in relating what happens when we are in town for a couple of weeks. It may seem to readers that we sleep, rest and enjoy life like we should after roughing it. In actuality I usually spend eighteen hours a day anchored to a tiny keyboard in front of a six-inch screen. After typing all the journal entries and cultural notes, I receive Luke’s text on floppies and start the html conversion. Then comes the page layout, photo editing, cross-linking of all pages, programming to fine tune the site, adding meta-tags, registering with search engines and continuously creating new pages with new topics while revising the overall site and testing dozens of thousands of links.

Computing in Central America is not like computing in highly modernized countries. Even with the occasional help of a cooling fan, in no less than five minutes my fingers are so sweaty they slide on every key. My palms slide on the pad of the keyboard and I have to wipe the drops from my forehead every couple of minutes so they don’t fall on the computer. If you’re an office manager and would like your employees to quit, send them on a computer assignment in the tropics. One day should be enough. After three days of constant pressure on the keyboard, in addition to fatigue, I usually suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome. This is when the repeated pressure on the palm creates an inflammation that pinches the nerve. Fortunately the symptoms usually disappear two days after we are back on the water. Our ability to upload changes and additions to the site varies depending on the phone line and local provider we use. Sometimes it flows; sometimes it crashes every five minutes, which isn’t even enough time to open a single page. In addition to a lot of frustration it can cost us a lot of money.

The website requires a lot of commitment. I give it all my free time because I believe in the final result. My reward comes when I know I touched people. It appears that I’m starting to accomplish that goal. Our website’s first award ("Best Travel Site" from Planet Rider, August 99) and the interest we have recently received from companies like Learning Outfitters (www.adventureonline.com) and Encompass One (www.encompassone.com), which feature our expedition, also helps to renew my motivation.

A year ago I envisioned a large website which would be an information resource for people who wanted to learn about Indigenous ethnic groups. Today I realize that it could be more. I hope that it will become not only a bank of information for interested outsiders, partially contributed to by Indigenous people, but a resource that is available to the Indigenous people themselves as a future reference. The site is to be a forum where they can share their knowledge, difficulties, and ideas with other groups. A place where in the future, the young people of the tribes raised a more modern society can learn about their heritage and history.

Recently the website has become more than a commitment, it has become an obsession. I can be paddling in the middle of nowhere and suddenly think of the site. Sometimes I wake up at night with new ideas. I even sometimes wonder where I find the greatest adventure, in the field or online. I engage in both with the same intensity and am sometimes surprised when I find it hard to dissociate one from the other.

Luke likes to say that Iím not normal. Luckily for me he is normal, and often it is due to his efforts that I actually manage to eat something. If it wasnít for the plates of food he serves me in front of the computer I would probably eat less than once a day. He also likes to say that Iím contagious. When I asked him what he meant he replied, "Through inspiration and shame, the people around you work harder!"

I believe that in spite of its present size, the CASKE 2000 website is still in its infant stage. I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up with more than three thousand pages by the end of the expedition. In the future we would like to add sound and video clips. I can see now that the possibilities are endless, and the potential is infinite. I certainly have my work cut out for me! If, however, you feel somewhat overwhelmed and a little tired just from reading this, then maybe you’re like me. Its time to return to the adventure and physical challenge. Let’s go fight a storm, meet a shark, catch an alligator, or paddle the unknown.

Jean-Philippe Soule


 

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