Archibald & Rufus

January 22, 2018 § 1 Comment

Today was the 2018 debut of Archibald & Rufus, the South Bay’s most infamous, mouthy, and ass-crackingly funny bike racing announcers on Planet Zebulon. It was also the first of six crits in the CBR race series, which brought more cockroaches, fleas, termites, lice, bedbugs, tapeworms, earwigs, maggots, and blowflies to the surface than the Black Death.

In other words, race season had begun!

The pre-race warm-up consisted of physically warming up, as the thermometer was barely breaking 36 degrees no matter where you stuck it. Iron Maiden did her pre-race laps in a down jacket; I chattered around the course in tights, undershirt, speedsuit, long-sleeve jersey, and a hoodie. As I warmed up I passed Dandy, who had driven up from San Diego for this edition of the Clash of the Infirm and Loose Bowels.

“What’s the plan, Dandy?”

“Fuggit, it’s so cold, attack from the gun.”

So we did.

The Brit and the hipster

Dandy and I have raced for decades and we raced together on Team Concentration Camp for four years, so we understand each other perfectly and we know crit racing even more perfectly. A mentally defective four-year-old can easily understand CBR crit rules, and so can even a few of the racers.

  1. You have zero chance of winning.
  2. You have zero chance of getting on the podium.
  3. Take all of your skin home with you.

Dandy and I, having fully internalized #1 and #2, set about punishing ourselves with a series of pointless attacks and accelerations that exhausted us, achieved nothing, and set the table perfectly for Steve Gregorious to mop the field with his can of Whoop.

In addition to setting up Big Steve, we also had to set up announcers Archibald & Rufus–without some silly antics on our part they would have nothing to talk about, an inexcusable crime since Archibald had worn his best British overcoat and wool ivy cap, and Rufus had donned his finest overcoat, wool fedora, and de-fingered punchemup gloves. These gentlemen dressed better than any bike race announcer anywhere, ever, commensurate with the stature of this great sporting event.

Archibald & Rufus & the turkey’s behind

As Dandy and I mashed through the start-finish, dragging the field behind us in stylish Cat 5 fashion, a pair of hammers launched for the prime. “The thermometer has now popped out of the turkey’s butt!” roared Archibald, “just in time for Thanksgiving!!!”

The two people in the crowd roared, and Rufus followed up with his trademark line: “With mayhem like that in the field, it’s raining meatballs!!!” Several spectators looked up, and one even grabbed a fork.

By the time the pack had absorbed us and rotated us to the back, Dandy and I had pretty much packed up our empty lunch pails and begun heading for the door. As we slunk shamefully to the shade of our respective team tents, Rufus called out our heroics. “That race was sure animated by those two guys who don’t know how to race!” Dandy and I stripped off our numbers and pretended that we didn’t know who they meant.

END

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About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

French Toast Ride prep

January 19, 2018 Comments Off on French Toast Ride prep

Here we are, a couple of weeks out from Dave Jaeger’s infamous French Toast Ride, and that means it’s time to do some preparation. How do you prepare for a 117-mile, 7,500-foot smashfest populated by fanged assassins? Answer: Go ride your bike. A bunch.

However, I am very far past that point in life where I am going to ride my bike a bunch for anything, so instead I did a blog search and pulled up all the ride reports I had done since I began chronicling the FTR in 2011. Let me tell you something, reading those posts was almost as miserable as doing the ride. Long. Meandering. Pointless. Endless …

As I stumbled through them, I realized how many riders have come and gone over the years. And the French Toast Ride has been going on a whole lot of years. Twenty, maybe a hundred, longer even than Dave’s ongoing prostate leak.

Old cyclists never die, unfortunately

Many of the French Toasters (toasties?) have fallen by the wayside due to breaches of etiquette, as there are only two FTR rules. 1) Show up. 2) Be nice to Jim and Nancy Jaeger. No one has ever violated 2, of course.

But it’s amazing how many people, after swearing on a stack of Hustlers that they will be there for the ride, manage to not show up. Over the years they have culled themselves from the herd, with the most unforgettable breach ever occurring the year that Neumann not only failed to show (lame) but didn’t even bother to let anyone know (excommunication).

Other Toasters have fallen by the wayside due to silly things like marriage, kids, job, and quietly swelling guts that eventually begin to whisper “You cannot do that ride any more.” Some keep ignoring the whisper, or perhaps they’re simply hard of hearing, or (most likely) it will take more than a whisper to rope ’em away from Pancho’s All-You-Can-Eat $5.95 Buffet. And of course there are French Toast Ride icons who have given up the ghost due to unforeseen life catastrophes, such as yoga.

Nonetheless, every year a handful of 20 or 21 or 22 ravenously hungry old people show up, lay waste to Jim and Nancy’s bathroom, eat piles of tasty breakfast, smash themselves for seven hours, eat a bunch more food, and then quit riding for another eleven months or so. But knowing what lay in store, I decided to prepare this time. Really prepare.

Hell is other people’s French Toast Ride training plan

Rather than go out and do a series of well thought out, carefully executed rides, or, better yet, join up with Jaeger & Co. for their Saturday AM climb-fests in the Santa Monica Mountains, Kristie and I met up at Via Valmonte and PV Drive North on Tuesday, 5:32 AM pointy-sharp, and did four laps around the Peninsula. Each lap included the Cove climb, the Alley, and Millionaires. Total mileage was 104-ish, with a cherry on top by throwing in Basswood and Shorewood, and total elevation was, well, elevated.

I realized when I finished that the whole thing had been a horrible idea. The French Toast Ride is more like a race where everyone pretends not to race while stopping and cheating and quitting, whereas four laps around the Peninsula is more akin to dousing yourself in gasoline and lighting up a cigarette, putting out the fire after a couple of minutes, then doing it all over again.

In other words, I’m now so tired and broken that I won’t be riding again for a couple of weeks. Just in time for some stupid ride named after a piece of bread sopped in raw eggs and fried in a pan.

FTR 2011, FTR 2012, FTR 2013, FTR 2014, FTR 2015, FTR 2016 : Canceled, FTR 2017

END

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About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

Here comes the Hun

January 16, 2018 Comments Off on Here comes the Hun

There is a nasty part of every day recently, and by recently I mean since about 2011, when it dawns on me that I have to sit down at the computer and write something that will offend enough people to get them to read the first paragraph, but not so many that I will be beaten to a pulp the next time I show up at a bike race or group ride or social mixer, raging inside at not being able to douse my soul in suds but insanely proud at resisting the call of the demon drink, like water torture infused with cocaine.

Today I pretty much knew what I was going to write about, which is a way of saying I had no fucking idea what I was going to write about because I am possessed by a mean bastard who waits until I hammer out the slug and then rips up the rails and sends me down a blind, bleeding, raucous, raw rabbit hole filled with mines, razors, concertina wire, and chocolate. I can handle everything except the fucking chocolate.

It was a simple story, really, about a bike racer whose nickname is “the Hun” not because he is an invading, one-man-horde of death and ruination, but because he is a Magyar, an Eastern European man born and raised in the Kingdom of Hungary, from whence the Huns originally were spawned and issued forth to ransack, pillage, burn, and upturn the citadel of Rome before giving into the weather, the art, the women, the boys, the poetry, and the wine, especially the wine, which, once hooked upon, turned them into the same soft and easily eaten cronuts of the emperors they’d only recently disemboweled and whose heads they’d set tastefully on bloody pikes.

I was going to talk about Attila the Hun and what a badass he is, and it was going to be complimentary and kind and a gentle revelation of a decent father and son, but what is the fun in that? Who wants a fucking fairy tale on the eve of MLK Day, when our Racist-in-Chief is celebrating the enslavement of a race by whacking golf balls, way over par and tipped in at the last minute by his lying henchmen who have stolen our national wealth and sold our fake democracy to the Russians? Who wants a happy ending, well, everyone who hasn’t been to China recently, I guess, and hasn’t seen that the iron fist of George Orwell has been increased 5,000% in size through daily workouts at Gold’s Gym and clothed in lululemon yoga gloves to make the rusty nails protruding from the knuckles look sexier, that’s who.

So, no happy story with a pretty ending for you today. It’s Tuesday and the job is in full meatgrinder mode, and even if you can’t keep your fingers clear, try not to stick your tongue into it.

This morning’s Tuesday Horror Story started on Sunday at noon at Telo, the world’s worst training crit ever. Even if you like wind and pain, even if you get wet and weak inside when you think about having someone stand on your left eye, nah, even then it was a shitty day. The whole idea behind moving Telo from Tuesday to Sunday was a stupid idea; “On Sunday there’s no traffic,” “We need a training crit between January and March, when Telo is SUPPOSED to start up,” and the dumbest fucking lie ever told, “It will be fun.”

Newsflash: Bike racing isn’t fun unless you’re doing the fake old supermaster jagoff World Championship 70+ ITT where you compete against one other idiot so that you can scurry home and brag that:

a. I’M A WORLD CHAMPION JUST LIKE PETER SAGAN and

b. I’M GOING TO PUT WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STRIPES ON MY BUSINESS CARDS

For everyone else, bike racing is a nasty, painful, disappointing, sadistic exercise in masochism and deflation and delusion that runs aground on physics, physiology, and mental decrepitude, and nowhere are the shoals as sharp and shark-ridden as Telo.

On Sunday it was a horrible contingent of actual bike racers. Not fake-fuck posers who buy all the fancy shit and wear all the fancy clothes and wouldn’t get near a number and a safety pin for all the trinkets on Strava, but actual people who raced actual bikes against actual other people for no other reason than the misery and disappointment of physical and mental collapse.

Prime among this tribe of angry people was Attila (his real name), “the Hun,” (not). With a paltry field, we started, took the first lap easy, and began attacking. After thirty-five minutes everyone was ready to call it a day, a week, a lifetime, anything but “not over,” yet for all that it was not over. Jon Davy seized the exhausted moment, kicked it hard in its tender private parts, and Attila followed. By then the minuscule field of a dozen had dwindled to six, with various collapsed and beaten competitors doing lackluster laps, randomly hopping in and out, unsure why they were there or what they were doing.

Dog knows I don’t know.

After a couple more laps Derek Brauch sprang free, Greg Leibert followed, and as I waited for Josh Alverson to do something, anything, they rode away and that was that. Derek was finally dumped, Greg bridged to Jon and Attila, and they took turns attacking Jon. Attila got free and soloed for an ugly win, not as ugly as the wreckage and destruction that the Huns had visited on Rome, but close.

Afterwards everyone sat around in the heat, dehydrated, sunstroked, in shock at having done something so hard and stupid when, for a mere $45, we could have spent six hours on I-10 doing a real 60-minute race in Ontario with racers who were not only more real than we but also way smarter. The Hun didn’t care. As he has done so many times past, in road races and in crits, he came, he smashed, he won ten dollars and a loaf of bread, and he went home happy, the skins and heads of his victims stapled to his jerkin.

No one is sure if Sunday Telo will ever happen again. I hope it doesn’t. But in the meantime, the demon has let me out of his clutches and this particular post is done.

END

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About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

Super Bowl I

January 10, 2018 Comments Off on Super Bowl I

The year was 1967. At a hastily chosen venue picked just three weeks before the game, the AFL-NFL World Championship Game became what was retroactively dubbed “Super Bowl I,” the greatest ridiculous event in the history of sports. With a name borrowed from the wildly popular Wham-O kids’ toy, the “Super Ball,” the Super Bowl’s journey to become America’s lasting contribution to obesity, alcoholism, and TV ad saturation came about in the most inauspicious of ways.

Unable to sell out the Los Angeles Coliseum, a mere 60,000 of the 90,000 seats were filled. Fifteen million televisions in LA County were blacked out due to broadcasting rules. Coaches wore blazers and short sleeve dress shirts. Thousands of spectators wore ties. A couple of nutballz whizzed around the stadium in hydrogen-peroxide jetpacks powered by Bell Labs, the next generation of personal transportation that wasn’t.

Globally famous entertainment was had by the marching bands from the University of Arizona and Grambling State University along with the release of 300 pigeons, one of whom crapped on Frank Gifford’s microphone. Parts of the massive electronic scoreboard came detached and plunged into the empty stands, avoiding what would have been certain death had anyone been there.

Yet for all its failures, this fitfully started work-in-progress became the behemoth it is today, a watchword for diabetics, couch potatoes, and gambling addicts the world over. In that first game, millions of viewers watched the heroics of legends like Starr, Gregg, and McGee as they launched that modest first Super Bowl into the airwaves, a perfectly thrown touchdown pass destined for the end zone of fame and eternal glory. From humble beginnings came greatness.

Much like that first Super Bowl, pitting archenemy NFL against the upstart AFL, this past Sunday marked the beginning of a sporting event so astounding that, despite its modest participation and relatively empty stands, promised to change forever the history of sport.

I’m speaking, of course, of the new date and time for the epic Telo training crit in Torrance. Historically held on Tuesday from 6:00 to 7:00 PM from mid-March through September, this past weekend saw the first ever Telo Sunday, run from noon to one. With technical and food support provided by ShiftMobile, a host of eager competitors showed up to contest this legendary race at a new date and time.

A hard fought battle with repeated attacks saw a breakaway with Marco “The Origin” Cubillos, Surfer Dan Cobley, Kevin “Roundhouse” Nix, and Brooks “Lotta” Hartt. After a series of attacks and counter-gasps, it was me, Surfer Dan, and Lotta. Coming into the final turn I surprised Surfer and Lotta with my hidden internal bicycle motor and was able to cross the line for my first ever Telo win, something that the history books will judge as vastly more important than anything that ever happened in Super Bowl I with the likes of Lombardi and Starr.

Unlike those heroes of Super Bowl I, who earned a measly $12,500 per person (and an even measlier $7,500 for each losing Kansas City Chief), male and female winners of Telo received a freshly baked loaf of the incomparable Mrs. WM’s home-baked bread. Marilyne Deckman donated her loaf to the hungry pack of wolves, who tore it apart and devoured it on the spot.

Telo is going off next Sunday as well. Do you want to be part of history, and perhaps even be the breadwinner? Be there!

 

END

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Meet the New Year

January 9, 2018 Comments Off on Meet the New Year

New Year’s Day in Kunming, 9:00 AM,  and the downtown was dead. There wasn’t a lot left to see or do but head to Changshui Airport to catch my flight to Hangzhou, where I had a 7-hour layover.

After several days I finally realized what it was that made this city sometimes feel like a big prison camp. It was the gates, walls, fences, grates, barriers, and bars that were everywhere. The point of all this design was of course to continuously break people down into their most basic, controllable unit, that is, the individual. A billion-point-three people could do some damage if they ever decided that the mandate from heaven had passed from the Party to someone else.

The streets? Divided not by paint stripes but physical barriers in the middle of the road. Bike/scooter lanes? Walled off. Walkways in subway stations? Divided by aluminum separators. The sidewalks were completely barred off from apartments and living areas with gates, locks, fences, and walls. Every unit, instead of having an open balcony, was enclosed by iron grating exactly like in a prison.

Nothing plays into the hands of control on a person-by-person basis, however, like the data aggregator/tracking device, which is so completely a part of existence that hardly anyone ever looks up. The devices allow the public to be pacified not with threats or generic propaganda but with customized eye and brain candy that is plugged into the purchase-consumption machine. People can’t act en masse without commonality of thought, and it’s hard to say the Party is wrong when you look at their docile charges, channeled and caged, and compare them to ours, who have made a complete mess of the freedoms they once had.

People don’t crave freedom, they crave a painless and brainless way to fill the horrible, aching, empty, yawning chasm of free time. The Party doesn’t tell them they’re free, it fills their time by telling them to work hard so they can afford the things that prove, once you have them, that you are happy.

The American Crudocracy, however, screams that you’re free, or that you would be if it weren’t for all the poor, black, and foreign people who have stolen your freedom from you by kneeling at your football game. The rage and laziness and ignorance are crystallized in the kleptocracy at the top, which insists that you’ll get your freedom back if you just allow a little more, okay, a lot more, kleptocracy and rage. And please don’t bother to vote.

The Party does its job with a lot more honesty, a lot less rage and theft, and with an eye towards helping the many rather than only a privileged few. Like the steel barricades that carefully channel pedestrians, China allows a lot of motion, and even some dissent, as long as you don’t try to hop the barricade. The control is gentle but firm and unresting, like the video cameras that track your every step.

So rather than saying it’s a New Year, it would be closer to the mark to say that it’s a not especially Brave, not especially New World.

New Year, newly untethered

Of the many great things that happened since my departure on the evening of December 25, one of the greatest was being cut off from everyone I know. No person is an island, but seven days in China without a data aggregator/tracking device sure makes you feel like one. I saw an American woman walking by, talking with a friend, and it was all I could do to stop from grabbing her arm and striking up a conversation. Luckily I refrained; the only thing that would likely have been struck is me.

Pretty soon it was time for me to take my leave of Kunming, New Year or not, and I knew I’d be back, especially since I now had a tour guidebook that included the city’s most interesting destinations not next to a freeway. It’s funny how quickly a city goes from being scarily foreign to morning-after familiar. On the way to the station I even saw my disgusted street vendor lady who had been so mad at me for overypaying at the other vendor for the worthless stamps.

“Hey!” she said as we made eye contact. “I have more stamps! Cheap!”

“Next time!” I promised; she laughing at what she thought was a lie, me laughing because I meant it.

The train to the airport was full, but I was the only identifiable non-Chinese aboard. In a short two-hour flight I was back in Hangzhou, contemplating the miseries of a 7-hour layover and a 14-hour flight departing just before midnight.

Almost seven full days of a technological detox had been incredible. I wondered what had happened back home. How was everyone? Was there still air in my tires?

These long spells of nothing to do had made me appreciate being alone and filling my time with writing, reading, struggling with Chinese, and thinking my own thoughts with no one to bounce them off, no one to share them with, rocks skipping across a pond that left no ripple. The rest of China and the world were hooked on one huge algorithm syringe, and when you take the blue pill it’s astonishing what you see.

Wenming for fun and profit

Part of China’s drive to become the lone superpower is its new policy of “civilization,” or “wenming.” Wenming is the philosophical vehicle to promote behavior and values that have made China a peer, and ultimately the global master.

For example, spitting. China had a terrible national habit of spitting. Young, old, male, female, toothless, toothy, the Chinese loved a good spit, and they did not GAF where the loogie landed. Somewhere along the way the Party realized that you couldn’t be a cultured superpower, respected by, say, France, if your citizens were covering the Champs-Elysees with a thick layer of yellow spatter.

Of course a lot of the spitting came from the chain smoking and the horrible air pollution, both of which result in throat/lung/respiratory diseases, but no great nation has ever simultaneously been a public spitting nation.

Spitting was just one obstacle to global greatness, but the Party decided that if it were going to send millions of tourist-ambassadors to Paris, Berlin, New York, and Decatur, it would need to also provide some basic cotillion for its spitting, pushing, hollering charges. Wenming for the New Year was gonna need a major push.

Enter the “Traveler Wenming,” or “Civilized Traveler,” a nationally distributed handbook available for free at every airport, in Chinese only. Here is a short list of things that the Civilized Traveler needs to keep in mind when he sashays abroad:

  1. No spitting!
  2. Say “Please,” “Thanks,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me.”
  3. No spitting!
  4. No grabbing sale items, no shoving to do No. 1 and No. 2, no blowing your nose in other people’s faces, no shoving in line, and NO SPITTING!
  5. Don’t throw down fruit peels, used tissues, or trash.
  6. Don’t smoke in the non-smoking section!
  7. Don’t take pictures where prohibited. Don’t take flash photos in people’s faces by surprise.
  8. Don’t spend all day in the public toilet!
  9. Flush.
  10. Respect old things and keep your hands to yourself.
  11. Stop yelling and hollering.
  12. Don’t eat and smoke in church, and no spitting there, either.
  13. Obey the tour conductor and flight attendant.
  14. Respect other nationalities and customs.
  15. Wear clothing!
  16. No drunkenness!
  17. Where it’s a custom, tip and don’t be a cheapskate.

The Civilized Traveler guide goes on to list a total of 30 civilized “wenming” behaviors to exhibit, and many more uncivilized behaviors to avoid, primary among them, of course, spitting.

But this list is only a quick reference. The guide goes into much greater detail and is 46 pages long, with exhaustive breakdowns of specific situations that require “wenming” behavior, for example on airplanes. The airplane section is broken down into:

  1. Waiting
  2. Boarding passes
  3. Boarding
  4. Airplane toilets (no spitting!)
  5. Airplane equipment
  6. Eating on the plane
  7. Carry-on baggage

As odd as it seems, these booklets are working, because I saw zero spitting, zero pushing and shoving, zero hollering, and probably not much sitting in the public toilet all day, although I didn’t time anyone. To the contrary, if anyone could benefit from a Wenming for Travelers it would be the classy American tourist whose comment in the Kunming Starbucks guest book was, “Maggie likes dick!”

Traveling American behaviors, like American foreign policy ones, are essentially irrelevant to China, though. Get over it, and then get used to it. The New Year is upon us with a vengeance.

END

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For $2.99 per month you can subscribe to this blog and pay to support what you might otherwise take for free. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. Thank you!

About SouthBayCycling.com: This the all-things-cycling blog about cycling in the South Bay and cycling in Los Angeles, maintained and authored by me, Seth Davidson, Torrance-based bicycle lawyer, bike racer, and personal injury attorney.

Hotel dinner challenge redux

January 8, 2018 Comments Off on Hotel dinner challenge redux

It’s funny how when you write everything with pen and paper you entirely forget about using a keyboard. Nothing to plug in or turn on, no socket to search for, no concern over how much battery you have left. You just take out your notebook (those under age 40, “notebook” originally meant a paper pad for writing), and get to work. Takes up zero space and weighs nothing.

It was the last full day of my trip and it turned into another odyssey, this time to a truly horrible place called the Yunnan Wild Animals Park. Getting there involved a ride to the end of the subway line, and then a couple of miles walking along very busy streets, where I got to appreciate one basic design fact: China knows how to pour concrete,

I found the park, which was an animal abuse area masquerading as a zoo. It was all horrible, but the lone sad orangutan gazing out at us while people shrieked and pointed and banged on the glass was more than I could bear. I had never seen an orangutan before and didn’t realize how large they were and how utterly human. This one lay on his steel display bed, so sad that it made me want to cry, his giant black eyes occasionally blinking, and I wondered how many decades he had left inside that tiny little cell.

I had expected some kind of park where there were paths and wildlife, but instead it was indeed “some kind of park,” the hideous kind. I saw only a handful of wild birds the entire time I was in China, less than twenty, despite countless hours outdoors and travel to some pretty non-urban places. The fact is that most of China has no wildlife of any kind left, not even house sparrows. What can be eaten or caught, which is everything, had been.

I found the main road and walked another couple of miles but my feet hurt so badly from the pavement that I couldn’t walk fast enough to get warm. Walking slowly, cold, is its own special displeasure. Another bus stop, another series of complex ciphers, another freezing wait, another uncertain trip, but 32 cents and heating, so there was nothing to complain about. Since the value of one yuan is about sixteen cents, and since people in the markets and on the street will bargain and haggle over one yuan, it gave me pause that despite its incredible wealth, the poverty in China is so profound that sixteen cents is an amount of money worth working for.

The bus seemed headed for downtown, which was a joyous feeling, until we made a left heading out of the city, which was not. I got off and figured I was close enough to find a subway station, and the plethora of scooter cabbies meant I was never really close to being lost. At the bus stop where I alit a woman was making gyoza, so I ordered fifteen. She was surprised but shrugged. I was starting to learn that when people responded to my perfectly mangled Chinese with surprise, I was usually saying something insane, so pay attention. It was fortunate I did, because instead of reaching for the gyoza tray she lifted the steamed meat bun container, fifteen of which would have amply fed a hungry family of, well, fifteen.

“No, no,” I said, pointing to the gyoza.

“Ah, gyoza! Why didn’t you say so?”

I felt like saying, “Because I am a fucking idiot,” but it was so self-explanatory as to have been redundant.

Her husband steamed the gyoza as I shivered and shook on the plastic stool, but when they came it was well worth the hypothermia, which the gyoza banished. I smothered them in soy sauce and fiery hot peppers, took out the reused wooden chopsticks (“Disinfected!” a sign on the wall promised) and got to work. Yum. As I ate I watched the woman do the meticulous work of rolling each gyoza skin, carefully fill it, pinch it closed, and line it up on the tray. Each one took about two minutes and the cost of each gyoza, retail, was twenty cents each. At the end she had small gob of leftover dough, about the size of a pair of dice, and instead of chunking it she put it back in the dough sack and returned it to the refrigerator. And I remembered, sixteen cents.

I was still northeast of downtown and figured I’d walk until I got cold again. It took a few hours to get back to my hotel, during which time I began trying to keep note of all the different things being sold at the hundreds of tiny shops and stalls and on blankets spread out on the sidewalks.

They included vendors who sold only chickens, toys, shoes, vegetables of every kind, guitars, haircuts, scooter repair services, donuts, games, bread, bikes, gyoza, noodles, used books, posters, printing services, silkscreening, tailors, medicine, beauty products, real estate, cardboard recycling, chicken coops with live chickens sold separately, pineapple carving, noodle dough, rag cleaners, garbage pickers, plumbing supplies, supermarkets, convenience stores, Chinese medicine, medical equipment, hairdresser/barber supplies, bags of every size and material, lottery tickets, internet cafes, roast duck, hot pot cafes, smog masks, thermoses, slippers, slipper liners, pots and pans, toilets, jewelry, diabetic foods, smoothies, wieners, nuts, feng shui furniture, gourds, necklaces and bracelets made from beads, safes, educational software, tracking devices, miscellaneous home goods, Playboy brand menswear, eyeglasses, picture frames, batteries, community health centers, blood banks, cigarettes, surveillance equipment, security guard supplies and clothing, uniforms, electric scooters, urns, wedding services, inns, sake, oranges, flowers, and even an old mendicant lying on the pavement in his underpants, thrashing his leg stumps and rolling on his belly while playing a sad song from a boombox and begging for money.

But what I didn’t see were bookstores or magazines or newspapers. The only bookstore in the entire city that I’d seen, Xinhua, was owned by the Party’s biggest “news” organ, and reminded me of East Germany in the days of the DDR. Nothing is deadlier to a police state than books, so you have to vet them with great care, and predictably there was hardly anything in Xinhua worth reading, especially literature or history or biography, i.e. “things with a different version of the possible than that espoused by the state.”

This is the big tradeoff in China, truth for security, and although people didn’t seem very happy or enthused about the prospects of tomorrow, which promised the same brutal toil of today as they battled for profits in 16-cent increments, the knife fight in the mud of selling useless shit on the street or in a cramped rented space, China also felt incredibly safe. And healthcare was available everywhere at little cost. And hundreds of millions were experiencing a rapidly increasing standard of living which included, for some, 100% carbon that was made fully of all carbon, purely.

China has 1.3 billion people and is incredibly heterogeneous, and heterogeneous nations have the potential for massive unrest. Through surveillance, a total police presence, a consumer economy, a corporatist state, and a continually rising standard of living, it offers stability, safety, growth, and a meaningful chance to participate in the global economy, soon to dominate it.

Is that worse than a corporatist state that openly wars against its racial and ethnic minorities, that humiliates the poor, that reserves healthcare for the rich, and that provides primarily for the profits of the richest? If freedom is so important and such a distinct part of our “special” democracy, why do so few people exercise it even to vote? Why is our “freedom” expressed in moronic captivity to football and professional sports? Why is our freedom of speech mirrored by a fundamentally illiterate and innumerate society?

Most importantly, if you don’t like China’s approach, what steps will you take to make sure it doesn’t happen here?

The fact is that free people die young, whereas properly enslaved people live longer. The older I get, the more I appreciate the extra minutes and hours.

Back at Hotel Unhelpful Clerks I collapsed and it was just barely three o’clock on New Year’s Eve. I watched TV for four hours, enjoying the amazing personality cult of the Great Leader. It was done with none of the heavyhandedness of the DDR, DPRK, or USSR, but cult is cult. And to be fair, Xi Jin Ping is a much better, smarter, more thoughtful, more humane, and a better human being than Trump or anyone in the current U.S. congressional majority, and much of the minority.

China spends billions on education, feeds, clothes, and provides healthcare for its poor children, and is continually struggling with how to raise standards and not simultaneously wreck the earth’s environment completely. Best of all, since all TV is run by the state, there is zero screaming on the news, zero attack-dog politics, and no bad news of really any kind. The repeated messages are:

  1. Be happy.
  2. You’re lucky you’re Chinese.
  3. This is our century, our world.

The surfeit of happiness and good thoughts made me hungry, so I decided to brave the hotel restaurant one last time for dinner. They seated me at a lone table again, but this time in front of the cashier and manager’s business desk, facing the rear of his two computer monitors, and boxed in by a refrigerator.

I felt like the orangutan, as the table sat squarely in the entrance so every patron could analyze my menu choices and my facility with chopsticks prior to being escorted into the free range dining area, which was private.

We hashed out the menu thing and they brought a delicious lamb and vegetable dish. My waitress from the first night had ended her shift and was in street clothes, but nonetheless stayed around until I finished eating to make sure everything went okay, i.e. I didn’t leave hungry. Having conquered the mighty Hotel Dinner Challenge I deemed it time to take on the Hotel Coffee and Tea Lounge Challenge, so I removed downstairs to the cafe.

I had little faith in the barista despite the fancy espresso machine, and she was nowhere to be seen, and I had nothing to do, so I grabbed a tourism guide for Kunming and began thumbing through it.

Who knew?!?!?!?

Kunming and its environs are packed with countless amazing travel experiences, exactly zero of which involved miles of frozen tramping along freeway side paths, zero of which involve seven-hour bus trips, zero of which involve haircuts and tea swindles, and all of which look tailored to show you a great time. If only I had known that things like travel and tourism guides existed, hidden as they were in the hotel lobby that I had passed through every day, given away for free, and spread out on large glass tables!

The barista took my order and brought out a beautiful cappuccino with a milk heart in the middle. It was the best coffee I had had since leaving home, and was $1.66 cheaper than Xingbaka. As the coffee warmed me, I thought of home. I missed my friends. I missed my bicycle. I missed my family, and I really missed my wife. Time to call this a wrap. Time to go home.

 

 

END

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Mid-trip crisis

January 7, 2018 Comments Off on Mid-trip crisis

There comes a time in every journey when you wonder “What TF am I doing here?” which usually follows hard on the heels of “I don’t think I brought enough money” and “Where can I get some diarrhea medicine?”

I was up at 4:30 again and realized that I had been traveling so hard that I’d not had much time to think. Before leaving, a friend who knows me well had prophesied that “This trip will be life-changing.”

First and foremost I realized that travel was largely about fear, or rather about tackling my fears of the known and my fears of the unknown. China had been a great big ball of uncertainty and fear, and each obstacle surmounted left me with an amazing feeling, no matter how trivial the conquest.

Likewise, there were challenges that had gotten the best of me, fears I couldn’t overcome, and each residual disappointment was as acute as the thrill of the tiny victories. What fears? What obstacles? What monsters lurking under the bed? Glad you asked. Here’s a list:

  • Fear of stepping in excrement on the edges of the squat toilet
  • Fear of catching the wrong bus
  • Fear of getting off at the wrong stop
  • Fear of going into a restaurant
  • Fear of menus
  • Fear of having my passport squeeze out of my front pocket and into the squat toilet
  • Fear of asking a question
  • Fear of not understanding the answer
  • Fear of getting lost
  • Fear of staying on the beaten path
  • Fear of ordering food
  • Fear of ingredients
  • Fear of exchange rate arithmetic
  • Fear of overpaying
  • Fear of underpaying
  • Fear of running out of cash
  • Fear of credit card declination
  • Fear of traffic collisions
  • Fear of emergency dental work
  • Fear of failing the subway/airport security screening
  • Fear of immigration
  • Fear of being a stupid tourist (redundant)
  • Fear of being mistaken for a loser expat
  • Fear of dialects
  • Fear of tones
  • Fear of kanji
  • Fear of asking in broken Chinese and being answered in perfect English
  • Fear of souvenir shopping
  • Fear of haggling
  • Fear of foul weather
  • Fear of smog
  • Fear of smug
  • Fear of other tourists
  • Fear of being the only tourist
  • Fear of losing shit
  • Fear of losing fitness
  • Fear of vanishing

There are probably a whole lot more, such as “Fear of running out of instant coffee,” but you get the point. However, this was only part of it. It has taken me a lifetime of travel, and it was only thanks to China, that I realized I’ve never cared for authenticity and have instead enjoyed travel for the solitude that came from brief interactions with strangers.

I began to figure this out when flying into Kunming from Hangzhou, seated next to the women from Oklahoma City. One of them had lived in Kurdistan for several years as a missionary and had learned the local language. She bemoaned the fact that in a few short years she had seen the demise of so much traditional culture, from language to clothing to customs.

“People no longer sat down for tea that spanned five hours,” she said, causing me to thank dog for at least that bit of cultural genocide.

That’s when I started to realize that the authenticity of a culture, whatever that even means, had no allure for me. I didn’t care whether people sat down for a five-hour tea or none at all, because authenticity doesn’t exist, if by authentic we mean that which is true to itself, independent of and unaffected by Starbucks and Wal-Mart. The trends and imperatives of a global consumer economy are irresistible and, with English as the globalizing weapon of choice, they flatten everything in their path.

But it took that seven-hour trip by bus into the farthest reaches of China for me to finally understand that I would never find the mythical authentic culture and that I not only didn’t care about now, but never really had. I was as happy strolling a neon strip punctuated with sales outlets for Apple and Huawei as I had been the time I wound up in the headman’s hut on the island of Sebirut, in the Mentawais.

The thing I sought was all around me, solitude and the oblivion of a strange land. I didn’t need cultural references and artifacts from 2000 BC to make it feel real.

By 6:30 it was still pitch dark and the hotel breakfast buffet didn’t open until 7:30. I hit the streets of Pu’er, which were so silent and pleasant in the darkness. Early morning cleaning crews swept the sidewalks, and they were wearing hi-viz vests with electric red blinking lights … we need those for Team Lizard Collectors! The cleaners’ presence explained in part why Kunming and Pu’er were so clean.

But there was another, more important reason. The Communist Party sees its role as a moral force, and throughout town there were exhortations on signs for people to take responsibility for helping build the new China. One of those jobs was not throwing shit on the ground, and another was not spitting. I saw zero public urination and smelled its residuals nowhere, thanks to effective moral instruction and numerous free public toilets that were cleaned all the time.

Pu’er was even warmer than Kunming, and after breakfast I checked out and did some more walking prior to heading over to the airport. A small hill on the north end of town had a series of morality murals telling people how to live. In addition to being very beautifully painted, the messages were good ones.

“Strong children make strong China.”

“Care for the elderly.”

“Wealth is helping.”

No one seemed to pay any attention to the murals except me.

Like Kunming, Pu’er had its own city bike rental program, which cost about 32 cents an hour. I longed to go for a pedal, but without a data aggregator/tracking device and a WeChat data aggregation/tracking account, I couldn’t rent.

I was now on my fourth day of going everywhere on foot and I wasn’t sure but that I didn’t prefer it. For one, you saw so much more. It’s easy to stop and look and snap a photo on foot, but the imperative of momentum on a bike makes you want to keep going.

Of course you cover a fraction of the territory on foot, but what you see, you remember, and the details are more carefully observed and much less evanescent. I doubt I would have scored that sweet potato on a bike. I wended my way over to the airport and went up to the ticket counter.

“I”m here to pick up my ticket.”

“Passport, please.” The clerk picked up a stack of boarding passes and flipped through them. “Here you are, sir.”

Chinese efficiency was putting on a clinic, and the one-hour flight back to Kunming was a contrast to the Baling Wire Express. My neighbors never looked at me, much less offered me a bag of oranges or took off their pants. In addition to the bus breakdown, which the airplane didn’t emulate, at one point in the bus trip one of my companions had taken off his pants and lounged around in his undershorts. He also cracked the window every now and then to smoke a cigarette in defiance of the ABSOLUTELY NO SMOKING OR SPITTING signs in the bus.

My genteel seatmate on Each China Air didn’t spit, didn’t smoke, left his pants on, and never once tried to open the airplane window. Cheap, slow, difficult travel makes a good pengyou and a better story. Fast, pricey, seamless air travel makes nothing but lousy sleep and a stiff neck.

During the flight I had studied my map of Kunming a bit more and decided that rather than return to my hotel I’d strike out by subway and on foot to find Humashan Park. It was a big green glop on the map and I thought it might be interesting, not least of all because it was east of town, far from the city center and therefore new territory.

On the subway a group of students hogged all the space on the benches even though if they hadn’t been spread out like a warm breakfast I could have sat down. An aged man carrying a blue bundle and wearing a ragged coat tugged my arm. “Come sit down,” he said. He turned to the students and gruffly said, “Make room for the gentleman!”

They did and, impersonating a gentleman, I sat next to him. We began chatting but it was rough sledding as his accent was brutal. The crammed subway listened.

He wanted to know all about my travels, how I liked China, where I was from, whether America was as nice as Kunming, why my wife wasn’t with me, and the ages, occupations, and marital statuses of each child. When he learned about my grandson, he was especially happy.

This one kind old man, he was 85, made as much of an impression on me as anything I’d seen or done. When he found out that I was going to Humashan Park he took out his data aggregator/tracking device and began giving me directions. Finally he offered to guide me though it was out of his way, but I declined.

We parted at the station and I began walking up a broken down and rotting street that, after a mile or so, crossed a freeway and became a miracle mile of restaurants. It was two o’clock and I was hungry, but my fear of menus and ordering really came on strong, like hives, plus the lunch rush was over and most of the staff at each restaurant were sitting down to eat.

After passing two hundred yards of restaurants I got disgusted with myself and swore I would enter the next place I passed. I did and of course the staff were just sitting down to eat.

“So sorry!” I said, and made to leave.

“No, no!” said the owner, a younger man in his early 40s. “Come here!”

Everyone stared at me but they were friendly. “This okay?” He pointed at something in the display case.

“Yes,” I said, unsure which of the 250 raw ingredients he had meant.

“Go sit now,” he commanded, donning his apron.

I obeyed and one of the staff poured me a cup of much-needed hot tea. After about fifteen minutes he came to my table, slung a heaping plate of chicken in peanut sauce, ripped off his apron and sat down to watch me eat. I tore into it with a gusto that no politeness could fake; I was hungry and the food was exceptional. Then came the questions and by now I was getting the hang of it, even with the molasses-thick Kunming accent.

Lunch stretched out and he took some pictures, offered me a ride to the park, and refused to take a penny for the massive lunch. When I left, he put out his hand.

“Pengyou,” he said.

“Hao pengyou,” I said back, there on the edge of town a few miles from my home, and it was good.

The walk to Humashan Park turned out to be not good, a bust actually, but it also turned out to be a bus, a local bus. After leaving the restaurant I concluded that my friend was a poor estimator of distances. He had said “about 1.5 km” but two hours later I was still walking, and all pretense of anything remotely scenic was left far behind as I was tramping along a sidewalk along a concrete barrier along a freeway.

After forever plus a long time I reached the park entrance but it was closed and hadn’t, from appearances, been a going concern since Mao was in diapers. The freeway bent off into the distance, and after several days of 8-10 hours worth of walking, my legs hurt. My feet hurt. My everything hurt. And it all hurt in unison, reaching a crescendo at the moment I passed a bus stop.

The local bus system for a city of six million people is complex. This stop alone hosted six different bus routes, each route printed on a small sign. There were a couple of other idiots freezing along with me, and I started studying the routes, trying to figure out which bus would get me back downtown.

After an hour’s wait and a coldness that had permeated my mitochondria, my bus came. I hoped it was my bus.

It only cost 32 cents, and more importantly it was warm, so I cast aside uncertainty and Fear of Wrong Bus and boarded. Less importantly, it appeared to be going in exactly the wrong direction, and even less importantly than that, I couldn’t understand the stops being announced, and the digital sign up front wasn’t working. Wrong bus? Wrong way? No directions? No problem because, heater.

I could have asked someone for help but I was afraid they’d say I had to get off and I still hadn’t thawed. Some of the bus stops had signs and names, and my initial worry gave way to confidence. Soon I’d be downtown, near food, and a mere hour or so walk back to the hotel, two at the most. When I disembarked I felt pleased, like Columbus five or six years after discovering America when he learned that he’d not discovered a new route to India but rather a couple of continents.

I ducked into a restaurant arcade and picked something off the menu that looked ghastly hot and it did not disappoint. Imagine my surprise when, on the tromp home, I passed Kunming’s very own Specialized store! Inside it felt like home! Carbon everywhere, virtually all of it 100% carbon and made all of carbon for silly prices, and salespeople clearly marking the minute until their next ride. We had a lively conversation! They wanted to know all about cycling in California, but all I could tell them was that the Wanky blog was blocked by the Great Firewall. They said that cycling in Kunming was excellent and growing, but the whole time there I saw exactly one cyclist, so I guess if they sold one bike they’d be doubling the cyclist population, and 100% growth is definitely growth. They confirmed lots of hills and climbing, and the presence of a nearby Starbucks meant they had all the ingredients for a Cycling in the South Bay Kunming franchise.

I got back to Hotel Lukewarm Shower late and dead, but it sure was nice to wash off and slap on a clean pair of underpants, my last.

 

END

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