Gear Change Up

Friday, May 26, 2006


I've been told that one of the benefits of international travel is a renewed sense of confidence and accomplishment upon completion of the journey.

That may be true. I'll let you know. But I don't know if the confidence comes from, "I just traveled, I can accomplish anything!"

I have a feeling it's more, "Here, I'm not a complete moron! Wooo!"

Case in point: One of my last tasks before packing up a base camp is always shipping recently finished research and other goodies home. Because otherwise by now, it would be a lot to carry. My backpack, my bike, 12 chinese scrolls, 14 water bottles, a sombrero, and a viking. Sometimes something has to go.

So. Shipping a package. Simple, right?

Maybe. I always save this task for the end though. Because I dread it. Not because I need to negotiate price for shipping (and it's usually a lot), not because I need them to figure out "United States" in another language, and not because it gives me a heart attack to think they could lose six weeks of my work.

It's because I have to get a box.

Boxes are actually quite innovative in Europe. They fold, they bend, and if you manage to manipulate it just right, the box comes together all by itself. However the journey from the realm of "cardboard" to the realm of "box" is not straightforward, nor is it easy.

I must ask. What is so wrong with tape? Something that folds into a square, and then you run tape along the sides. It's beautiful! Simple! Something even a government major can get on the first try!

But no.


I go find a corner (preferably dark), and then I have to sit hopelessly and hope that I can figure out how to put the box together. I then have to put my departing belongings inside, fold the box into something I hope looks like a box, go to the counter, have the guy fold it the right way, walk me through filling out the forms, and two hours later I can go drown myself in a bucket.

Travel is so hard. Places are so different, people have such different customs, and the vast majority of the time you walk around helpless and with absolutely no idea of what's going on. But... the post office... this is familliar. Stamps. Boxes. Please, God, let me have one realm in this gigantic world where I can get something right.

That's why not being able to put a box together can be a morally crushing experience.

So where does the sense of accomplishment come from? Maybe after being stupid for so long, and then actually getting something right.

Like today.

When I sat in the post office, but eventually figured out how to put the box together. By myself. With no help.


Today's Score: Brit 1, World 0.

Take THAT world!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Thank God for America...

...Was the title of the lecture, and seeing how it was in english, free, and with Holland's most famous international correspondant, I decided to check it out. I was curious. "Thank God for America." As a token American I know that we tend to prefer to take all the credit, but if we have to share the spotlight with someone, God is usually our first choice.

Things that bothered me:

1. A figure Groenhuijsen quoted: The world is safer today because genocides are down something like 80% .

Who quotes numbers of genocides in percentages?

2. The world is safer today than it ever has been because fewer countries are in conflict.

Maybe, but I think barring Iran and North Korea, todays dangers are terrorists, and terrorists are not really associated with countries, so while fewer countries may be at war, I'd advise not to kick back an grab a beer.

On the whole actually, I think I agreed/disagreed with what he said about equally, so who knows, maybe he was right on with the American psyche. Most of the discussion tailored to Iraq, and the US as the only country willing to sacrifice its sons, daughters, and tax dollars for bringing democracy and a chance at a decent existance to the middle east.

Quite inspiring. As an American, I really really wanted to believe it. And I know that it is partly true. Kind of, sort of, maybe. It sounds so good. But...see...I remember the events leading up to the Iraq war. I remember being anti-war. I even remember thinking to myself, "Self, if we were going in there because Saddam is a bad guy and these people deserve their own government, I would support war in Iraq. If we wanted to give people a chance at liberty and equality, I say lets go kick ass and take names. Bring on Saudi Arabia, countless African countries, everywhere that is screwing the people."

But that's not why we went to Iraq. And it's really disheartening to see it portrayed that way over and over and over agian. Because Americans are not dumb, yet we keep trying to fool ourselves. Anyone who was paying half attention knows that we went because we thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and in a post 9/11 mentality, we were scared shitless.

Don't get me wrong. Good things have come from our invasion. Saddam is gone. Iraqi people have voted not once not twice but three times. There may be a stable government there yet. Who knows. But we can't keep kidding ourselves. We don't learn from the past if we keep trying to rewrite it.

That's why it's easy for Europeans to attack us (verbally). We went in for our own reasons but tried to twist it into something noble; which it was not. And we made mistakes with troop levels, with Abu Gharib, with Guantanamo Bay, with insurgents, and it does make us look like the bad guy.

It's funny though. They're mad because they expect better of us. Hell, we expect better of us. But Europeans want liberty for all of Iraq, equality for all of its people, with no abuses, with no disrespect to human rights, with life, liberty, and the right to pursue for all.

Ridiculously high standards. Who created those standards anyway? :)

The US. This has been my first trip to Europe. And it's great; it's beautiful, tons of culture, ridiculously high standard of living. But this comes from the fact that straight up, Europe doesn't have the guts to get involved if it has to, and in turn it is raising its standards of living, but it's becoming marginal in the world scene. It's armies are outdated. No money is going to modernizing them. Europe doesn't want to fight because it can't. Peace is good and all, but what if it doesn't work? What if these Iran talks fall through? What then? Or should I ask, who then comes in to take charge?

Europe is making itself obsolte through its social democratic actions. And it's sad, and especially dangerous for the US. Because as much as we clash with Europe, we really don't have anyone else out there. Australia is ok. China we don't trust. Japan isn't militarized. Africa has no means to help us. Israel has it's own problems. South America is somewhat...well I hate to use the word useless.

But we need friends in the world, and Europe is really all we got. I didn't really leave the lecture with a better understanding of europe. But the point was to explain Americans to the Dutch. Right or wrong, for better or worse. Time will tell to see if it worked.

Why We Ride

Because it's raining and windy and miserable.

Don't get me wrong. All those reasons are can be used just as easily for not riding and curling up in bed. Or floor as the case may be.

Riding in the rain does not make it better. Sometimes I believe that if I give enough effort, the sun will shine through just for me. Sometimes that happens. Not always. Usually, it's still just as cloudy, just as windy, and just as rainy when I get home, and the only thing that's changed is that when I left I was clean and dry, and when I get back I am soaked to the bone and covered in mud.

Yeah. It's still crappy out. But somehow, after you ride in it, it's easier to deal with.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I got pulled over

I angle to the curb and step to the sidewalk, out of traffic. The cop stops his motorcycle next to me and says, "Something something something."

"Sorry officer, I don't speak Dutch."

He sighs and shakes his head. "Why did you run that red light back there?"

Funny he should ask. It's actually a question that I have been pondering a lot in recent weeks. The second half of my project (entitled The Culture of the Bike) requires me to construct The Global Cyclist. Or at least the culture of the global cyclist. Or at least common traits of cyclists the world over regardless of their purpose for riding.

Because even though we are all separated by continents, by incomes, by culture, by beliefs, and by lifestyle, we all still pedal. So there must be similarities between us all. Not a lot, but they are there, and one of these similarities is that we the cyclists of the world all break traffic laws.

There is no exception to the rule.

I know I was trained at a young age to break traffic laws. Not trained per se, but I remember the family bike rides. Dad would ride ahead to the intersection and look both ways, and if the coast was clear, we went. If there was a stop sign, this routine did not change. Not a wheel stopped turning, not a foot was put down.

I don't know how we all went from that to blowing off traffic signals, riding up streets the wrong way, and for the very best of us...breaking the speed limit. But it happened, and now cyclists are the pirates of the road. In China we form stregnth in numbers, and when we have enough we eek out into the lanes; green light be dammed. The cars stop. They don't want to, and they'll come within a half an inch of you, but they stop. In New Zealand we tear down the trails at top speed and hikers go from human beings to mere obstacles; they add to the challenge of it all. In Spain we're trying to keep up the average speed dammit, and if we're decending faster than you're driving (I'm talking to you in your Ford Ka), we have no problem swinging into the oncoming lane. And in Holland, what is the point if no one is coming? We're cyclists. We do what we want, go when we want, and park our bikes anywhere we want.

The problem with studying cycling is dealing with the pluralism of the bike. I can't define it, but I don't feel bad about that fact because, well, no one can. Is it a vehicle or not? Is it practical or not? Is is green or not? Liberal or conservative?

Is the cyclist invincible or vulnerable? The cyclist must be invincible to muster the courage to face tons of steel coming at them at top speed. The cyclist laugh in the face of danger when faced with the prospect of causing serious injury. The cyclist knows his ability to cause extreme damage to others is minimal, and can take full responsibility for himself. And if the cyclist thinks he can make it, he's gonna go for it.

But what about vulnerability? Does the cyclist take the law at his own interpretation because he knows that he can't cause that much damage? Does the cyclist dart in and out of traffic to find the safest route or the quickest route? And, for me, coming from a country where the number one killer is not cigarettes not old age not crossbows but cars; do I really trust laws put in place for vehicles of destruction to protect little old me and my helmet?

The plurality of the bike obviously extends to the cyclist, and because we can't decide what we are, are we still subject to the same rules as something we know we aren't? Or do we just create our own as we go along?

And why? Running a red light. It's not like I blew through an intersection. I was in fact...stopped. And I got sick of waiting. And no cars were coming. So I went.

But I didn't want to tell that to the cop. Nor did I think that he would be all that interested in my deconstruction of the cyclist. And in fact my only interest at the moment was talking myself out of a ticket.

"Sorry, sir. I was looking at the little green man as opposed to the actual light."

He shakes his head again. "Next time, you stop."

And drives off.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Riding errands

Transport by bicycle. Sounds idyllic. You think it's a good idea until you land directly in Holland. And you learn that just because fewer people die doesn't mean you feel safe.

But you get used to it. You learn to look not only left and right, but 360 degrees when crossing the street. In fact you also learn sometimes its best to just not cross the street at all. You learn to lock your bike. First the back wheel with the dutch invented wheel lock. Just a key is needed and bam, your bike is disabled from riding until you and only you enable it. A cable for the front wheel, to lock it to the frame. And finally a chain to go around the frame and to a rack, or a tree or a post.

You learn patience. You learn to wait for the signal, as opposed to hopping across the intersection. You learn to dodge young boys, old women, and couples holding hands and taking up the entire lane. You learn the rules of the road because the Dutch are not afraid to call you out on a mistake.

You learn the entire city and that you can get anywhere in less than five minutes.

And you notice. What it's like to be woken up by the birds as opposed to cars in the middle of the city. How the loudest thing in the city center will be the band that's playing.

Cycling as a mode of transport is far from perfect. You can't carry a lot. You can't go all that far. Sometimes it rains. And there is no radio glued to your handlebars.

But you take what you can. You get where you need. You wear a raincoat. And you learn to sing at the top of your be dammed.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

"You can lose all your money,

You can lose all your gold.
But you can never lose your heart
And no one can take your soul."

Congrats to the 2006 Hamilton Women's Lax team on a record-breaking season. Waddup y'all.

That was the most fun I've ever had in an internet cafe.