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Sharing the gift of travel

Whistler couple captures a motorcycle odyssey across Africa in slideshow



What: The Journey II: A Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa

When: Saturday, Aug. 1, 8:30 p.m.

Where: GLC

Cost: $15

Todd Lawson and Christina Tottle don't look like your typical team of avid motorcyclists - they're not dressed in leather chaps or Harley T-shirts. In fact, when they aren't out on the road, they're more at home behind the lens of a camera and inside a yoga studio, respectively.

A former golf professional, Lawson is originally from Stony Plain, Alberta, and has a background in journalism and photography. He moved to Whistler back in 2002, and has lived in the community on and off since then, using this as his home base for his extensive travels.

Tottle moved to Whistler from Winnipeg in 1999. The pair were introduced through a mutual friend here in Whistler, and actually met for the first time at Alta Lake Station House.

"I bought my first bike and got into the world of motorcycles in South Africa," Lawson explained. "My brother was racing motorbikes in Cambodia... and we met in South Africa, in Cape Town, in 1999."

His brother, Sean, suggested taking a quick, spur of the moment trip, and that's all it took - Todd was hooked.

"The world of motorcycle travel is like no other," he said. "There's freedom that you experience on an unprecedented scales, it opens your eyes, every day you feel like a kid."

But shortly after Todd's eyes were opened to motorcycling, Sean suddenly passed away.

"We were on the road, we were traveling on our motorcycles and he got diagnosed with cerebral malaria and he passed away in four days," Todd recalled.

There are four different strains of malaria, and while it is a treatable condition, there is no cure or inoculation for it. They had chalked Sean's flu-like symptoms up to a bug, and hadn't thought much of it.

"It's treatable if you catch it in time," Lawson said, pausing. "We didn't catch it in time..."

Five years later, Todd decided to fulfill one of Sean's dreams, to ride across South America on a motorcycle. Tottle decided to come along, even though she'd never ridden before.

"Since I met Todd, we're now ridden 38 countries," Tottle said.

"Over 67,000 kilometres," Lawson chimed in.

The pair tries to camp as much as possible during their journeys, so they can immerse themselves in the great outdoors.

"You're with all the elements, so the sounds, the feelings, the weather, the cold, the hot: you're there," Tottle said, smiling broadly.

In fall of 2004, the pair left Whistler, traveling for 19 months and hitting every country in the Americas. After returning home to Whistler, the adventurous duo still had the travel bug.

"We had such an incredible outpouring of love and acceptance from the Latin people," Lawson recalled.

After returning from their trip, they decided to share their experience with family and friends, and fellow travelers, the only way they really could - through photography.

"People always ask us when we're on the road, 'why are you taking my picture?' and it's just to share with our friends and family and people back home, so they can understand the different cultures," he said.

They decided to host a slideshow at the GLC, which raised an unprecedented $4,000.

"We didn't really know the response that we were going to get, and it was really overwhelming, people were just kind of blown away," Lawson said.

They decided to tour with the show, traveling throughout the Sea to Sky corridor, then on to Edmonton, Winnipeg, Fernie and Nelson and continue raising money.

In the midst of the tour, they formed the Sean Lawson Young Travellers Foundation, with the mandate of taking children on educational journeys, taking them out of their villages and classrooms to promote education through experience, rather than a textbook.

"It's sort of passing on Sean's inspiration, as well, because he encouraged us to do what we've done," Tottle said.

The tour had raised a substantial amount of money for the foundation, so the pair decided to go to Africa, but this time, they wanted to give back a bit of the love they had received on their first journey.

So why not simply use the money for a more traditional development project, like opening a new school?

"For us, travel is our education," Tottle explained with a slight shrug.

So last December, they used the funds to take 10 children, ranging in age from 9 to 14, from the Arua Hill Primary School in northwest Uganda on a special, educational field trip.

"It just opens their eyes and gives them a bit of a spark, shows them what else is out there," Lawson said.

They took kids to a game reserve at a national park, where they saw rhinos, elephants, hippos and baboons, and learned all about conservation and wildlife tourism. They enlisted the help of the principal and teachers in selecting kids that best deserved the experience - not necessarily the ones with the best grades, but rather, the ones that showed the best appetite for adventure and learning.

Tottle points out that many people haven't had the opportunity to travel and haven't had the chance to explore foreign languages, culture and societies.

"Even me, before I went there, I had my reservations and I was worried about violence and all of the things that you hear about (on the news) and we didn't see any of that," she said.

Cooks, a driver, and a few teachers who helped to develop and implement lesson plans based on the group's travels, accompanied Tottle, Lawson and the kids. The whole group traveled in a small 15-person van, and stayed at an educational centre in the national park.

"Even the contact that they had with us was huge, because some of them, at first, were quite shy because they didn't know us," Tottle said. 'Or, they had never talked to a white person before."

By the end of the trip, any of that fear seemed to have disappeared.

"We got letters back from these kids saying, 'Thanks for taking us on this trip because we've always learned that the Nile River is the longest river in the world, but we stood on that river,'" Lawson said.

On top of the educational initiatives through the Sean Lawson Young Travellers Foundation, Tottle and Lawson have also delivered more than 2,000 insecticide-treated bed nets to children in small villages in four East African countries, through their separate Motos Against Malaria initiative. They joined up with the Against Malaria foundation, a large organization that helps to protect young children, in particular, against malaria, as immune systems are still weak until they're about five years old.

"We went to a lot of people that were living in just thatch huts and slept on mats, so they hung the net, but it was about that far off the ground," Lawson explained, holding his thumb and forefinger about two inches apart, "so it renders it ineffective."

Since they were already planning on returning to Africa, Tottle and Lawson decided to distribute and set up the donated nets themselves, correctly, to ensure that recipients would actually receive the nets and that they would be effective.

"That was probably the most rewarding part, to know that money that was raised from our friends and family, that we helped potentially save a life," Lawson said.

This weekend, the couple is holding another slideshow event at the GLC. They want to show the communities exactly what they've been doing with the money that was so generously donated the first time around, and they hope to raise some more money for the foundation. This time, they're stepping their game up, integrating video into the presentation, and adding in more anecdotal stories to accompany the images.

Anyone unable to attend the upcoming event can visit www.sunfirefoto.com/SLYTF to find out more about Tottle and Lawson's travels.