Does bicycle education work?

January 18, 2018 Comments Off on Does bicycle education work?

I cannot believe I am sitting here writing a blog post about bicycle education. If there is anything more boring, I don’t know what that might be. Oh, wait, yes I do: Uninsured/underinsured motorist insurance and how it can protect you on your bike. That’s way more boring.

But like the Santa Ana wind dryness of insurance blather, bicycle education blather is a matter of life and death. It is dorky and requires you to slow down and pay the fuck attention, spend some time doing something other than shopping for bike porn. Like taking the time to buy and charge and put on front-and-rear lights, it’s well-spent time.

I sat down with Gary Cziko, bible-thumping evangelist for Cycling Savvy, but the testament wasn’t written by a bunch of goat herders out in the desert, it was written by people who have a lot of bicycling and traffic engineering experience when it comes to staying off the grills of Rage Rovers. Cycling Savvy uses various instructional paradigms to allow riders to ride anywhere. Streets, sidewalks (where it’s lega), you name it. Although lane control is the default technique, the idea behind bicycle education is that people ride bikes all kinds of places for all kinds of reasons, and there should be a way to address their riding with sensible, practical, safe techniques.

Increasing bicycle education

Gary is now in his fifth year of teaching as a Cycling Savvy instructor. The number of actual courses and actual people who have been through his courses is shockingly low; more about that later and why it’s less important than you might think. After about 13 courses and upwards of 130 participants, I asked Gary what he thought the biggest obstacles were to increasing bicycle education in Southern California.

He didn’t miss a beat. “Two main problems, those who think they don’t need the education because they don’t ride on streets, and those who think they don’t need it because they have a lot of experience.”

Gary knows about that last part. “I was an edge rider for years but Cycling Savvy makes it easy and safe and it decreases the risks.”

“How are you going to expand that?” I asked.

“Cycling Savvy wants to exapnd. We have two online courses but need additional funding to market the curriculum. We’ve hired our first full time administrative employee, an associate executive director. We’re looking into partnerships with charity rides, SCNCA, USAC, and affiliation with clubs, much as we’ve done with Big Orange. We’ve worked with Sean Wilson at SCNCA to develop a complete skills system, from racing to training and riding on the road.”

Still, with only a few courses having been taught, along with a few hundred people who’ve taken the online courses, I wondered if Gary was optimistic. Dumb question. It’s Gary, folks.

“I’m encouraged by getting cyclists in the full on-bike training, not just the classroom, where we work with riders of all skill levels to teach them how to surmount challenging situations. What’s encouraging is that people are changed and enthusiastic and they want to share with others. The Cycling Savvy curriculum started in 2011 and reached 18 states in 3 years. But we need increased funding for courses that reach families and kids, courses for fondo riders, and of course for e-bikes.”

With  5-10 courses planned for 2018, the need vastly outnumbers available resources.

Or does it?

The ripple effect

Gary agreed that more instructors, more classes, more online marketing are crucial. He also pointed out that by educating a few cyclists you can education hundreds more.

“There’s a ripple effect,” he said. “When we started the training in Big Orange, people were unfamiliar with it. Now, even though most Big Orange riders haven’t taken the course, every club ride has at least one rider who has, and those riders take the reins and make sure that the group is using Cycling Savvy principles. By changing even one or two people, you can affect everyone who sees this kind of effective riding and who then tries it out. Of course we need training for planners and transportation engineers, too.”

When I asked him about the dreaded PCH, Gary was emphatic that bicycle education has educated drivers, too. “There’s less honking. Motorists are used to seeing large groups of riders out in the lane. Cyclists are less hesitant to use the full lane when it makes sense. One study found that there is more honking the farther you are to the right, which makes sense because they see you from a long way back and can adjust when you’re in the lane. But with edge/gutter riding they don’t see you until the last second.”

Getting your club educated

If you belong to a bike club and you don’t have a club-wide bicycle education plan, now is the time to get one. Cycling Savvy offers online courses and in-person instruction depending on the area. The courses are cheap and can save your life. Importantly, in our own neck of the woods, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, there anecdotally seems to be a lot less hostility than a couple of years ago; I chalk part of that up to the effect of people being more assertive and educated about where and how they cycle.

No matter how much you know or how experienced you are, these classes will open your eyes.

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.

The middle ground a/k/a FDR

January 15, 2018 Comments Off on The middle ground a/k/a FDR

There is a sweet spot in cycling for most people, located right in that middle ground between “pound” on the one hand, where everyone feels like they had eye surgery sans anesthetic, and “flail,” where you finish the ride and wonder, “Did I ride?” The South Bay’s Fun Donut Ride, or FDR, hits the sweet spot almost every time.

It’s a hard spot to find because any grouping of riders invariably attracts an outlier or two. The pounder whines because it was “too easy,” and the flailer moans because it was “too hard.” Of course no ride is right for every rider, all the time. But coming up with that Sweet Spot Ride, getting it started, and hardest of all, keeping it alive, is fiendishly hard to do, yet it’s precisely this kind of ride that builds community and participation in cycling. How to do it?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Joann Zwagerman’s FDR.

Genesis: How the FDR came to be

I could give you the background of the FDR, but why? Joann has already done it for me. With a few edits and emendations, here it is:

Greg Seyranian had a South Bay ride called the Anti-Donut. I would show up week after week and pedal my ass off. It was mellow for them but it was totally challenging for me. I did my best to try and keep up. They never abandoned me and they always waited for me and I found that remarkable.

Once race season began and the Anti-Donut ended, I found myself looking for a similar ride. If you were a racer, you were on the Donut Ride. If not, you were looking for friendly people to ride with. Thus, the Fun Donut Ride, or FDR, was born. It is an inclusive, non pretentious, friendly, fun and challenging ride.

Maybe today is your biggest ride? Your first group ride? Your first FDR? Whatever it is, I hope you feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of it even if it’s just eating your first donut with chocolate sprinkles in ten years and making a few new friends!

Thank you everyone for all your support! Ride on and be safe!

Exodus: How riders joined the FDR

As we all know, it’s fairly easy to start a ride. You tell a few friends the time and place, give them a general rundown of the route, and three of them show up. If you invite a hundred people, you can expect maybe four. Everyone does the ride, has a more or less good time, and then you do the ride for a couple more weeks, and participation increases a bit or stays the same.

Then comes the crunch moment. It’s the day for “your” ride. You’ve told everyone you’ll be there. But yesterday you got a bo-bo on your boo-boo, or maybe a boo-boo on your bo-bo and it’s feeling really ouchie as you lay there in bed with only thirty minutes to crap, air your tires, drink some coffee, pull a pair of shorts out of the dirty hamper, and scurry to the start.

What do you do? You roll over, of course! This isn’t your job! It’s your hobby! Those wankers know the route! You’ll be there next week anyway! Snxxxxxxxzzzzzzzz!

Of course your pals see it differently. They get to the start and you’re not there. They check their phones. They call you. Someone finally rouses you and you groggily text back, “Boo-boo on bo-bo, out.”

And guess what? You just drove a wooden stake through the heart of your nascent ride. Because for a ride to continue, the person who started it has got to keep showing up. It’s like being married, only far worse because at least when you’re married, rolling over and snoring is an accepted part of lovemaking. Requisite, actually.

What Joann figured out with the FDR was that if you’re cycling in the South Bay and you want people to commit to you, you have to commit to them. And that means a date, a time, a place, and a commitment to be there “til death do us part.” Week in and week out, the FDR went off with Joann present to shepherd her lambs, and it went off in some pretty extreme situations.

Broken hand? No worries, Joann sagged in her Rage Rover. Broken wrist a few months later? No worries, Joann sagged in her Rage Rover. Ride founder overtrained and barely able to move? No worries, Joann either did the ride, sagged in her Rage Rover, or rustled up a deputy. And this last part, “rustling up a deputy,” has been a great innovation because the FDR’s success has led to its having two routes: A fixed loop around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, and a variable route that can venture pretty far afield. Having a deputy means that the fixed FDR route always takes place, and people aren’t left showing up to a ride where they are the ride.

Revelation: You can make an FDR, too

Joann’s FDR has brought a lot of people into cycling and now serves as a focal point for people who are looking for a regular ride–not too hard, not too soft–and for event organizers who want to get the word out about their event. From Phil Gaimon’s Cookie Fondo, to the Belgian Waffle Ride, to Rivet Cycling’s Santa Barbara ribs extravaganza, people in the cycling community recognize that FDR is there for the community as a whole.

This, of course, is how you grow the cycling donut, and then get to eat it, too. One rider at a time.

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.

The boozification of Starbucks

January 13, 2018 § 1 Comment

Coffee didn’t used to be part of cycling. It had nothing to do with it, period. I remember being out on some ride in the middle of nowherecentraltexas with the Dicksons and Fields … you think anyone ever suggested stopping for a cup of coffee? Or an espresso? Water and a coke and a candy bar, let’s roll.

Fer fuggsake, we didn’t even know what espresso was. Coffee was bad tasting watery black shit that came in a big can called Folger’s and you drank it in the morning to wash out the taste of your hangover.

I still remember my first Starbucks, in an airport circa 1999. I had been in Japan for years and was making a brief trip back to the States, and I think it was in the DFW airport where I wandered up to the counter, attracted by the sign and the giant word “COFFEE.”

“Seems like a thing,” I thought. “What will those crazy Americans think of next?” I stared at the menu like a monkey perusing a calculus textbook. “May I help you?” the lady asked.

“A coffee, please.”

She waited. “Would you like an espresso drink, sir?”

“Sure,” I said.

She waited some more until it became clear I was lost. “How about a latte?”

“Uh, okay.”

“Tall, grande, or venti?”

“What’s the difference?”

“Shots, bigger is more shots.”

I thought about that for a minute. “Can I just get a small coffee? It’s too early for shots.”

She nodded and made me what I later learned was a Tall Drip. Small coffee = Tall drip. Got it.

When fancy coffee came to town

A few years ago I was riding with Marshall Perkins, who is about a hundred. He knows the history of cycling in SoCal better than anyone this side of Ted Ernst. “Marsh,” I said, “when did coffee come to LA cycling? Was it always a thing?”

“Nope,” he said. “I remember the first time we ever stopped for coffee on a bike ride was in the late 70’s. Before that no one drank coffee as part of biking. It was a little joint in Santa Monica, I think, made espressos, lattes. Then after a while it kind of became a thing.”

LA was years ahead of Texas, naturally.

Of course nowadays you can no more ride without coffee than you can ride without air in your tires. And I’m pretty okay with that, not being a fan of riding on flats. But yesterday after the Flog Ride we wandered into Starbucks to grab a quick cup and noticed that they had just rolled out a new campaign, “Blonde Espresso.”

I roast my own beans in a frying pan and I know that any bean that might be light enough to be mistaken for a blonde is gonna taste like shit. But for a marketing name, it was pretty good. It was supposed to make you think of … what?

When crafts collide, or the boozification of covfefe

It didn’t take much ogling to figure out what they were selling, and it wasn’t sex. They were selling booze, or rather they were selling the image of booze. The subliminal messaging was astounding: Blonde is a variety of craft beer as we all know, and then the ads said “straight-up” and showed the coffee being served in proper shot glasses.

Along the back wall all of the syrup flavors were arranged in bottles, just like the hard alcohol in a bar. And the coloring, black and yellow, was exactly like in a Miller Genuine Draft ad.

Of course it all makes sense. There are millions of people who get up in the morning and the hardest thing they will ever do is make it to 10:00 AM, when they have their first drink and all becomes right with the world. That’s how it is when you work 14-hour days, counting the days to retirement, working your ass off to pay for things you can’t enjoy because you’re working to pay for them, a slave to status and buy-buy-buy clickbait, leading to double-margarita lunches, nightcap dinners, and a bottle of Jim Beam in the worksleep cubicle. And I guess the boozified coffee makes it seem like you’re cheating the clock and getting a little nip at the very top of the morning. In fact, the imagery makes you want to add a splash of whiskey…all a coincidence, I’m sure.

I ordered a double blonde espresso, and it tasted good. Lots better than the usual motor oil flavor that Starbucks is famed for, but not nearly as good as the beer I used to love knocking back well before noon. I wasn’t sure what to think about the boozification, other than to acknowledge that the marketing was pretty slick. But I did end up ordering a second round. For old time’s sake.

END

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The eyes have it

January 12, 2018 Comments Off on The eyes have it

I finished racing Telo on Sunday, changed, and hopped in the car for the drive to Santa Barbara. A few days passed and I got ready to ride again and couldn’t find my riding glasses. “Have you seen my cycling glasses, honey?”

“No. You had them at Telo, though.”

“Probably in the back of the car somewhere.”

“I’ll run look,” she said, and she did, and she came back in a few minutes with my cycling glasses, all right, but the frame was split in half along the top. “You left them under the hatchback and they broke when you slammed it shut.”

These were my SPY Quanta prescription riding goggles, the best eyewear I have ever had. My eyes are very bad and you can’t ride a bike and survive for long at all if you can’t see, and see well. The Quanta was the first wide-screen frame that could accommodate my ridiculously thick prescription.

My awful eye history

I’ve had bad eyes ever since I was a little kid. I always used to fail the eye test in class because the school nurse thought I was “clowning.” She’d set up the chart with the big, giant, monstrously huge “E” at the top and all the little tilted ones getting smaller and smaller as you went down.

She’d call name. “Davidson!” and the class would titter because they knew what was coming as I did it every year.

“First line?” the nurse would say.

“I can’t see it,” I’d say, and the class would break out in howls as even a blind person could see that huge, giant, monstrous, whomping “E.”

I was a cut-up and made bad grades mostly because of my personality, but also because I could never see the blackboard or anything on it. I think I did pretty good, especially in math, considering that.

When I was thirteen we were driving along US 59 in Houston one Sunday on the way to a movie. In Texas every ten feet there is a 400-foot tall billboard along every freeway. “What does that say?” I asked my mom as we passed right in front of a sign so big you could have read the print on Mars.

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said, which everyone knew meant that I wasn’t serious at all.

But later at the movie my parents noticed for the first time that I was sitting on the front row like I had been doing since I was six. Afterwards my mom asked “Why were you down there on the front row?”

“I’m always on the front row,” I said.

“Why?”

“Because I can’t see.”

The next day I was sitting in the office of Dr. James Key, ophthalmologist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic. It was my first real eye test ever. I remember what a nice guy Dr. Key was, and how he had the thickest glasses I had ever seen. Afterwards he said, “You don’t really see much of anything at all, do you?”

“No, sir,” I said.

“We will fix that,” he said. And he did.

The day I put on those first eyeglasses it was amazing. The world was so filled with sharply defined objects! The colors all had edges! You could read from a long way off! And I could figure out whether my shoelaces were untied without having to guess.

MMX to the rescue

From that day on, my cycling glasses became the most important article of clothing I owned, and many years later my SPY Quanta glasses were the gold standard for eyewear. If you rode with me even once since 2012 I was wearing those glasses, which were developed and designed by my friend Michael Marckx while he was the CEO at Spy Optic. He went on to develop some of the best cycling glasses ever made by anyone, anywhere, during his tenure, but none worked for me like the Quanta simply because it could handle my thick lenses and had a ridiculously wide field of vision that didn’t distort at the edges.

I stared at those poor broken frames and thought about all that we had been through together: Crossing continents, hitting the pavement, chewing through incredibly bad weather and rough roads … those were the cycling glasses that had kept my eyes safe and had kept the road in front of me focused and clear. All of those things were nice to reflect on but what really struck me was the incredible generosity of which I’d been the beneficiary, because Michael had given me those glasses with the prescription lenses as a gift.

In fact, he gave countless sets of glasses to friends and grifters, most of whom never bothered to say thanks or who thought that because they raced for an amazing masters team of 50+ grandfathers they were somehow entitled to expensive eyewear as they “promoted the brand,” i.e. wore the glasses. Unlike the traditional frames that Michael also designed, these were built to protect your eyes and your face. And that’s exactly what they did, more important to me than any wheel, any frame, any drivetrain, any bicycle outfit.

What was funny is that I never wanted the glasses in the first place because I had no idea how transformative a great set of frames could be. Oakley had just come out with a narrow, razor-band style of glasses that could hold my prescription but that provided almost zero width of vision; they were like looking out of a gun turret slit, and I’d shelled out almost $400 for them. I was dubious that these new glasses would be an improvement, as simply having prescription sunglasses was revolutionary for me. Until then I’d cycled in John Lennon frames, with every manner of grit and shit getting around the lens and into my eyes.

In fact, with those John Lennon specials, every couple of years I’d have to go to the eye doctor to get pieces of steel surgically removed from my cornea, tiny bits of grit and road detritus that got blown into and lodged into my eyeball surface. The Quantas took care of that once and for all.

But Michael is nothing if not persistent, and when the Quantas showed up and I put them on, well, everything really did look different. If it weren’t for him I’d probably still be wearing those crappy Oakleys because, cheap-ass. And of course I wondered how many other people had been the beneficiary of his largesse, how many other people with significant eye problems had found an amazing solution thanks to this and some of his other phenomenal designs.

As I wondered what I was going to do, I rummaged around in my Random Bike Shit Drawer, and there in the back was another pair of glasses. Quantas. Worn maybe twice. It was like finding a winning lottery ticket as I took them out and tried them on; perfect fit and perfect prescription.

Thanks, Michael.

Quanta cycling glasses

Cracked by the hatchback!

Quanta cycling glasses

Long and faithful, hardworking friends!

END

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Flat earth theory

January 11, 2018 Comments Off on Flat earth theory

My wife rides a road bike with flat pedals. It’s interesting to watch how people react to that. Rather, it’s interesting how reactions are so uniform.

“You need clipless pedals.”

“Why don’t you get some riding shoes?”

“You are losing so much power.”

“When are you going to ditch those flat pedals?”

“You’ll go so much faster with clip-in!”

And etc.

Most of the people who see fit to comment on her sad state of pedal affairs know that we are married and that I ride a bike a lot, so it’s kind of curious that they don’t run that through their filter, like this: “She’s got flat pedals, but she’s married to Seth so she probably knows about clip-in pedals, so there’s probably a reason …”

But no.

The reaction is uniform and knee-jerk: “Are you going to get clip-in pedals tomorrow? Or today?”

I wondered why people care which pedals she uses. The ostensible reason is that she will pedal more efficiently and therefore go faster. But that’s a bad explanation; the last thing that a new cyclist should do is go faster. New cyclists should go slower and learn to control the bike at lower speeds. Physics aren’t linear when you fall off your bike. Incremental increases of one or two mph result in much greater force when you fall off, and therefore greater injury. Telling beginners they need to go faster is like telling new drivers they need to go faster. Huh?

And from a psychological perspective, why would you want someone to go faster anyway? Doesn’t that mean they will beat you? You should want them on the worst equipment possible, in fact, eating nothing but peanut butter and ice cream five times a day.

The biggest reason people want you on clip-in pedals, I think, is because without clip-ins, you look like a Fred. This means two things: If you’re riding with me, and you’re a Fred, then I’m a Fred, too. Or it means that riding with you reminds me of when I was a Fred, and it’s a lot more comfortable to think I was born knowing how to drape myself coolly over a 100% carbon bike that is all carbon and made of pure carbon rather than to remember that, yeah, I used to not know anything, either, and I looked like it.

And of course in road cycling there’s the fashion element, where people instinctively shun those who are clearly unfashionable in an activity where the way you look is oh-so-important.

With regard to safety, everyone should start with flat pedals and most people should never leave them. On a road bike there are too many instances where taking your feet off the pedals will keep you from crashing. Anyone who thinks that you need clip-ins to climb well should have seen Josh Alverson or Stathis Sakellariadis shred the Donut Ride the times they rode it in sneakers.

And a bit of Internet reading confirms that the idea that clip-in pedals somehow yield huge improvements in pedaling power is not true. At best, the differences are negligible. Tellingly, the athlete in the power test confides that he still wants clip-ins because they help him when sprunting for peak power. Not sure that has any meaning at all for 99.999% of all people on bikes.

I’ve used both, but prefer clip-ins for a very particular reason.

And I’m not telling why. At least not today.

END

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Meet the New Year (It’s the same as the Old Year)

January 9, 2018 Comments Off on Meet the New Year (It’s the same as the Old 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.

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 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.

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.

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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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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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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My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

January 5, 2018 Comments Off on My tea button is bigger than yours, and it works

My alarm went off at 4:30 but I didn’t go off until six. After a quick shower in lukewarm water I scanned my map, which had blow-up sections of all the main cities in Yunan Province, including Pu’er. In tiny characters at the bottom was a list of bus stations and which destinations they served. One of them listed Pu’er, so my only task was to show the name of the bus station to the front desk and ask them how to get there.

When I approached the desk with my map they scurried but I nabbed one. He scowled at the name on the map and shrugged. “I don’t know that place.”

He took it to his co-worker, who was equally perplexed. “Go to the subway,” she said. Back to square one.

I left the hotel and decided to walk to the main train station, which was a mile or so beyond the nearest subway stop. I got there and saw nothing besides a local bus stop, so I decided to do what they had been saying all along, that is, go to the subway. I wondered what magical thing would happen when I appeared at the subway to direct me to the bus stop.

Halfway there I saw a giant green sign for a travel agency touting tours throughout Yunan, and paused before it, wondering whether it was time to seek professional help. A woman darted out from the crowd proffering a business card.

“Where would you like to go? I’m a licensed travel agent!”

“Pu’er.”

“Pu’er?”

“Pu’er.”

“When?”

“Today.”

“Today?

“Today.”

“Returning when?”

“Tonight.”

“Tonight?” She looked perplexed.

A man in a shabby black coat ran up, also holding a business card. “We can do that,” he said.

“We can?” asked the woman.

“Of course!”

“He’s is my colleague, Wang. He is excellent and will be a good friend to you.”

“How much?” I asked.

“180 yuan,” he said, about $28, which seemed steep but not unaffordable.

“Okay,” I agreed.

They both brightened like Christmas trees. “Follow me,” Wang said.

We began walking back to the train station, then turning down various side streets until we reached a small office filled with people holding massive suitcases, and everyone was in a huge hurry. The man brought me to a woman. “Here,” he said, like a fisherman delivering a giant tuna to his happy wife. “My hao pengyou.”

“When do we leave?” I asked.

“You want to go to Dali instead?” the fish wife asked.

“No. Pu’er.”

“Dali more famous. And pretty.”

“Pu’er.”

“Dali is much better. Pu’er is old country town.”

“What time do we come back from Pu’er?”

“What time do you want to come back?”

“Evening.”

She wrinkled her nose but didn’t miss a beat. “Okay.”

It didn’t seem very organized. “What time does the return bus leave?”

“You just call me and I’ll come pick you up.”

I could see several people smiling when she said that. Something was wrong. “No, thanks,” I said, and started walking.

My two hao pengyou sprinted after me. “Come back!” they howled as the tuna swam away. “You will love Pu’er! Great price!” I opened up my long stride. If they were going to follow far, they were gonna need some lungs. After a minute I dropped them, then headed back towards the subway.

At the entrance a bunch of motor scooter cabbies were standing around looking for fares. “Where you going, friend?”

I showed the cabbie the name of the bus stop on my map and told him I wanted to go to Pu’er. He whistled. “50 yuan.”

“Too much.”

“Bus stop too far.”

“15 yuan.

“No.”

“15 yuan.”

“No.”

“15 yuan.”

“I will take you to the bus stop where you can catch a bus to take you to the bus stop to catch the bus to Pu’Er. 15 yuan.”

“Okay.”

I climbed on the back of the scooter and we shot off into traffic. It occurred to me to be scared, but I decided to focus instead on not falling off. It worked.

He whipped into a sad parking lot with a handful of small, sad, dirty buses, and offloaded me. “That’s your bus, number C71, cheap!” And off he sped.

It was cheap, only 5 yuan, or 80 cents. I boarded and waited as the bus filled. We took off, and it became clear why the cabbie had wanted 50 yuan. We were taking a very, very long trip. After half an hour we reached the massive South Bus Terminal. I got off and went in. A bus was leaving for Pu’er at 10:30; my timing was perfect. You have to give your passport to buy a ticket for a bus that goes out of town, so the government knows who’s going where. The ticket cost about $28, which again seemed pricey for such a nearby destination.

I boarded and soon we left. My seatmates across the aisle were well provisioned for the trip with several bags of mini-tangerines, thermoses of booze, and a stack of bread cakes. They were enjoying themselves immensely before we had even left the parking lot.

The traffic was horrible and an hour flew by, then a second, though we had left Kunming completely and were flying down the expressway. I turned to the guy nearest me. “What time do we get into Pu’er?”

“5:30,” he said.

“5:30?”

“Yes. It’s a seven-hour trip.”

Now it all made sense, everyone laughing at the travel agency when I said I wanted to return that evening; the “high” fare; the extensive provisioning of my neighbors. It was also clear that I would be spending the night in Pu’er.

Pu’er sits at well over 10,000 feet, and the bus never went in a straight line for more than a couple of minutes. We plunged down huge mountain passes that descended for ten miles or more, and clawed our way out with the vintage diesel engine groaning and bucking up the grade every inch of the way. I wondered if the bus would break down, but then put aside my cynical superiority complex. This was China and it wasn’t this bus’s first rodeo. They knew what they were doing.

By the third hour I was famished and dehydrated, and my seatmate offered me a bread roll which looked delicious but which I could never have chewed with my dust-dry mouth. “Thanks but I’m too thirsty to eat,” I said.

He nodded and pulled out a giant bag of mini-tangerines. “Here.”

I began peeling and devouring them, and they were probably the tastiest things I’ve ever had. “Hunger is the best sauce,” as Sancho Panza was so fond of saying.

We struck up a kind of traveling friendship; he and his pal were going to Pu’er for a short vacation, and soon the whole bus knew that I had thought it was one hour’s drive from Kunming, generating much hilarity.

About an hour from Pu’er, the bus really did break down. We pulled into the village of Tong Guan and all got off the bus. The driver called the main office, and they advised him to “fix it.”

With a much put-upon look he opened the engine compartment, poked around, then took out his toolbox. Everyone stood around and watched, along with a great many villagers for whom this was capital entertainment of the finest sort. No one was shy about offering advice, either. One man seemed to have very decided opinions about the repair job, which he punctuated with spitting. Everyone smoked. No one got angry. Broken buses seemed like a part of the ticket purchase, and the driver’s filthy and well-worn wrenches alternately inspired confidence and despair.

After half an hour of very intense wrench work, the driver took off his greasy mechanic’s apron, took a photo of the repair job, and texted it back to HQ. They were not impressed, because he began cursing and kicking his tools. He finally went over to a small side storage compartment, unlocked it, and pulled out a fat coil of baling wire. Everyone had an opinion about this latest development and Mr. Very Opinionated began expectorating with such vehemence that I feared he might spit out his tongue.

The driver climbed halfway into the engine compartment, and fifteen minutes later he emerged black from head to toe with only a short snippet of what had originally been a fifteen-foot coil, at least. He ordered us all back on the bus and off we went, another hour of dreadful mountain road with death at every turn, bound to this earth by nothing more than a flimsy strand or two of cheap wire. There is a metaphor there somewhere, and if you find it, it’s yours.

The arrival in Pu’er was anticlimactic. We shuffled off the bus and as we alit my pengyou mentioned that if I were really in a hurry to get back to Kunming I could always fly. If I wanted to have a good time, a really good time, a really, really good time, I could spend the night and hang out with them. “There’s an airport here?” I asked.

“Yes. Tiny town but has an airport.”

“How tiny?’

“800,000.”

I kept forgetting that tiny in China and tiny in the USA meant different things. By now I knew that the best shot outside a bus terminal or subway station was just to stand around and I’d have a pengyou in no time.

Sure enough, a group of illegal cabbies began chattering about me until one came over. “Where to?”

“Airport. Is there a flight tonight to Kunming?”

“Oh, yes, many.”

“How much to the airport?”

“30 yuan.”

I was too tired to haggle. If he didn’t murder me en route I’d not worry about the four dollar cost. “Okay.”

Pu’er was bustling on a Friday evening. I saw young people everywhere and the town consisted of, it seemed, one endless main street. My illegal cabbie seemed nice and was loquacious and inquisitive, but his accent was an impenetrable firewall. I imagined his questions and supplied my own answers, which seemed to work.

In a few minutes we reached the airfield, which was smack in the middle of town. “You’ll have to get out here,” he said. “The airport police know me.”

I exited and walked into the airport and up to the one ticket counter. “Any flights to Kunming?”

“Yes. In one our. 900 yuan.”

I handed her my passport and credit card. She entered my info. “Sorry, flight is full.”

“Oh. That was quick. Do you have another?”

“Yes. 11:00 PM. 2000 yuan.”

“Wow. Okay. I’ll take it.”

She took my credit card. This was the first time I’d used it in China. “Sorry, Chinese credit cards only.”

“I don’t have enough cash.”

“WeChat?”

“No cell phone.”

My friends who had traveled in China had told me that without WeChat to pay, I’d be fucked. Now I was, as I contemplated another full day on the Baling Wire Special.

“Tomorrow’s early flight is cheap. Only 600 yuan.”

“I’ll take it. How early?”

“11:15.”

“Perfect.” I shelled out the bills.

“Come here tomorrow at 10:00 for your ticket.”

“I want my ticket now. I just paid you for it.”

“No ticket now. Come here tomorrow.”

“Can I pay then?”

“2,000 yuan. And maybe no seat like now.”

“Can I have a receipt?”

“No. We will remember you.”

I gave up and left. At least I’d get to see Pu’er. Then I realized I had no place to stay. I hailed a cabbie. “Where?”

“Nice hotel that takes American credit cards.”

He nodded and off we went. We pulled up at Jing Land Hotel and he opened my door. “15 yuan, please.” My illegal cabbie really had ripped me off a whole $2.15.

I entered Jing Land in fear, fear of credit card declination. Fear of sleeping on a park bench. Fear of arrest for vagrancy. “Do you have a room for tonight?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do you take foreign credit cards?”

“Of course!”

I never bothered to ask the price. I did not fuggin’ care.

The Jing Land Hotel was a big step up from my $33/night crash pad in Kunming. At $42/night I got more space, a nicer bathroom, hotter water, and two free condoms placed thoughtfully next to the toothbrush. I decided to walk around for a couple of hours and called the front desk to ask if they had a map of Pu’er.

“Staff will bring to your room.”

Soon there was a knock at the door and a pretty housemaid was handing me a map. “20 yuan, please.”

I was about to pay, a bit surprised a the $3.33 price tag, almost three times more than the awesome maps I had bought in Kunming that were already falling apart. “This isn’t even new,” I said, looking at the ratty edges and tears forming along the creases.

“Yes, it is.” I stared hard at the holes and ragged edges, so she doubled down. “Brand new.”

“Here I am, 400 km away from a provincial capital which is itself thousands of miles from anywhere and I’m about to argue over two dollars and some holes in a perfectly serviceable but shitty little map,” I thought. It was half principle, half cheapness, half stubbornness, and half annoyance at spending the day on the Baling Wire Express. Then I thought about the park bench I wasn’t on, the vagrancy charge I wasn’t facing, and her pretty, smiling, lying face. At least if you’re going to lie, don’t do it by halves. “Okay,” I said, giving her the 20 yuan. China won again.

Outside, Friday night was going full blast, but the main street was nothing but retail shops. I figured the food was elsewhere but after an hour couldn’t find it, and the few restaurants I passed were shuttered. One place was open, down a side street, called “World of Steak.”

The bored staff were playing with their data aggregator/tracking devices, and hopped to attention when I came in. I pointed to the Steak in a Box on the menu pinned to the wall.

“Cola or juice?”

“Water, please.”

“It comes with cola or juice.”

“Can you make it come with water?”

“Cola is better.”

“I believe you. Can I have some terrible water instead?”

“Okay,” she gave in, giving Team USA its sole goal of the tournament.

What came out of the kitchen was amazing, and not just because it took half an hour and sounded like thirty people were taking apart an old car with hammers. It was amazing because there was nothing there. The girl brought out a large drink cup 3/4 full with a lid shoved far down into the cup and from which a cute, curlycue straw protruded.

Atop the lid was a tasteful arrangement of a celery stick, a carrot stick,  seven french fries, and about ten tiny, tiny cubes of meat. Each french fry had a ketchup-and-mayo face drawn on it. The whole thing was about three bites of food. It tasted great, but my last meal had been almost fourteen hours prior. I figured I’d do the hour walk back to the hotel and go to bed hungry again, which most certainly would have happened had I not passed two old women hawking baked sweet potatoes. The potatoes were huge, hot, and all carb. I bought one and sat on the curb to enjoy my dinner. That night I slept like a log.

END

———————–

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Chairman Mao

January 4, 2018 Comments Off on Chairman Mao

I left the hotel at 5:30 and the streets were deserted except for a handful of cars and electric scooters. Whether you like it or not, China is our future, and our future is electric. The scooters were silent except for the sound of their tires, and it struck me that despite the darkness no one bothered to use their scooter headlights, perhaps to save battery run time. Nor are helmets required; it was strange seeing so many bare heads on motor bikes.

But of all the things that were strangest and most disturbing about China, none was even remotely as disquieting as the constant surveillance. The video cameras were everywhere, every sixty or seventy paces, and they were matched by a constant police presence. The public security apparatus was on every street corner or not far from it, and you quickly dispensed with any notion of privacy or unobserved activity of any kind. Although I was traveling phone-and-computer free, I could easily see how total the surveillance becomes once the state has the power to intercept all digital communications, which are your thoughts. I was glad that my paranoia was benign, accepting that the monitoring was constant, but not really caring other than to note how effectively the surveillance modified behavior and thought.

The Chinese goal of total thought and behavioral control, however, wasn’t simply for the purpose of maintaining political power, but to maintain political power through a consumer economy that was constantly raising the standard of living. The vibrancy and energy of China is not easily observable in art or culture, but is overwhelming in its manifestation of consumer activity and the development of financial structures that  enhance and accelerate the growth of domestic spending.

Commerce, in other words, was everywhere, but art and those things requiring independence of political thought, especially dissent, were nowhere to be seen. This played hand in glove with the total ascendancy of data aggregator/tracking devices, which keep a billion-point-three people glued to screens that alternated between carefully tailored political messages, advertising, monitored peer-to-peer and peer-to-network communications, and music. And selfies.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

At any given time in any given crowd, the great majority of people were bent over their data aggregator/tracking devices, oblivious.

Sound alien? Check the mirror …

As I made my way downtown, hungry, I passed a woman with a small cart on which she was energetically cooking up what looked like the most extraordinary breakfast burritos I had ever seen or smelled. I ordered one and she began frying an egg and mixing in all manner of ingredients over a flat pan that was heated by coals.

However good I expected it to taste, after going to bed hungry and stomping the streets for an hour to further stoke my raging appetite, it was a thousand times better. It was also filling, fresh, and hot, and set me back a total of $1.20. Before long I had a hankering for coffee, and could not resist my generation’s equivalent of McDonald’s, which is Starbucks, or “Xingbaka.” I swore, falsely it turned out, that this would be my sole stop there, and slunk in, embarrassed, for my tribute to American industrialized food. Nor was I surprised at the incredible price of $7.00 for a grande latte, for which I could have bought five street burritos.

And I have to admit that it tasted very, very good, enhanced no doubt by the deep loneliness that had set in after an entire two days of no contact with family, friends, or news from outside the Great Firewall.

On the way back to the hotel I felt pleased to be able to find my way around a pretty big city with nothing but a map written in Chinese, but I was dispirited at my difficulties in speaking. As it turned out, reading was much more useful anyway.

Along the river I passed an impromptu flea market where vendors, none of whom was under the age of about 70, had spread out the most useless of wares I had ever seen, and for which they had, incredibly, no end of customers. Old blankets, old belts, stained kiddie shoes, ancient underpants with frayed edges, rusted toenail clippers, plastic and glass jewelry of the lowest sort; it looked like a supplemental income program for the aged.

Finally something caught my eye, proving that there is one born every minute. An old woman was selling Chairman Mao pins and old banknotes and medallions. We began haggling. She wanted $1.40 for a couple of tiny pins barely worth a nickel, so I offered her eighty cents. She laughed and we haggled some more until I got them for a dollar. Then she tried to sell me a broken transistor radio. Remember those? I moved on.

Sort of wondering about why I had stopped to buy a memento of one of the all-time mass murderers, I passed another blanket with a similar layout. I made the fatal mistake of pausing for the briefest of seconds, and the old duffer was instantly pushing a collection of canceled Chairman Mao postage stamps into my hand. “Fifty dollars!” he said.

I thumbed through the plastic display case which couldn’t have been worth more than five dollars, probably closer to fifty cents. I offered him two dollars and he said he couldn’t take a penny less than twenty-five for such rarities, so we went back and forth until he put them down and offered me an equally useless collection of stamps bearing Sun Yat Sen. One thing about negotiating in China that you need to learn early and often is that you always lose. It takes time to know the value of useless crap, and to make it worse you know and they know that for you, five bucks is a cup of coffee–except at Starbucks. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they have a mercantile culture dating back five thousand years. Plus, there is national pride at beating Americans, and especially tourists, in any negotiation.

I finally caved per the script and shelled out the insane price of ten dollars. I took no comfort in the happiness he got out of the deal. Then I noticed that the Chairman Mao stickpin lady had been standing off to the side, scowling. She had followed me and monitored the entire transaction. As I left she sidled up beside me.

“He defrauded you. What a rip-off! A cheat! You were burgled in plain daylight!”

“Really?”

“He’s a notorious cheating old man, a criminal, a thief of the worst kind. I would have sold you those stamps for nine dollars.”

“Quite a bargain.”

“Right! That old man is known for cheating everyone. He even cheats his poor old aunt.”

“Aunt? My goodness! How old is she?”

“She’s a hundred and three, totally blind. He steals from her all the time. Look,” she said, reaching into her bag and pulling out the identical Mao stamp set that the old man had been hawking. “Nine dollars, only for you because you are my good friend.”

Whenever a Chinese person who you don’t know calls you a good friend, you are about to get fucked. The old man had said it about twenty times and here she was, another street thief, calling me a good friend for a dollar less.

“Good friend?” I asked.

She brightened. “Hao pengyou! Hao pengyou!”

“Hao pengyou price is $1.00. Not hao pengyou price is $9.00.”

“$1.00 not hao pengyou.”

“Hao pengyou price is one dollar. Not hao pengyou price is fifty cents.”

She thought about that for a second and saw the way the negotiation was going, and vanished. It was almost 8:30 AM and I had succeeded at my first full morning in China. I had gotten breakfast, walked for hours, had coffee, bought some crap, learned the city layout on foot, and most importantly for cultural understanding and global relations, had made at two hao pengyou.

About the time I reached the hotel I was feeling peckish again and happened to look down a narrow alley filled with carts, each cart the site of a major culinary operation. The tastiest appeared to be the spicy flat-noodles-in-a-paper-bucket guy, and I was struck again at how much skill and actual cooking went on for a buck twenty. He cooked my noodles on the spot and I wandered over to the curb to sit and slurp.

The eating was extraordinary and the noodles were brimming with flavor and brimstone. My eyes and nose discharged immediately but I couldn’t stop eating. I had thought the burrito lady was queen, but decided that the noodles-in-a-bucket guy was king.

Back at the Hotel Celerich I continued having difficulties with the staff, or rather they continued having difficulties with me. The essence of the problem was that they did not give a shit about anything, and my butchery of Chinese combined with their inability to speak English meant that all interactions were to be terminated as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoided at all costs. There was no talk of hao pengyou.

This time I wanted to know how to get to the city of Pu’er, which appeared to be an hour or so away, and is the most famous city in China for tea. You can’t go to tea shops in Kunming without seeing a display of the big round wheels of dried Pu’er tea for sale, wrapped in beautiful paper.

Asking the front desk dude about getting to Pu’er caused almost as much stress and confusion as when I had asked where I could find razor blades. After much back and forth with the other staffer, and repeated searches on his data aggregator/tracking device, he ended with a question.

“Pu’er?”

“Yes. Pu’er.”

Dali is much nicer.

“I don’t want to go to Dali. I want to go to Pu’er.”

“Dali is more famous.”

“I still want to go to Pu’er.”

“Today? When coming back?”

“One day trip.”

This caused another round of consternation and discussion, with no one really believing that I wanted to do a day trip to Pu’er. I knew I was fucked when the manager came over and kept glancing at me with incredulity every time they said “day trip to Pu’er.”

He straightened his jacket. “No train to Pu’er. You should visit Dali.”

“I don’t want to. What about a bus?”

More consternation. “Bus okay.”

“Which bus?”

“Bus stop at train station.”

“Which station?” It was like pulling teeth from an angry tiger.

“Go to subway.”

“Which one?”

“Bus.”

“Which bus?”

He shrugged. Everyone had done their best to give the visiting idiot exacting instructions and they now had better things to do, such as anything but this. I returned to my room, defeated at another negotiation but pleased at having been defeated using only Chinese.

It was also dawning on me that one of my difficulties wasn’t simply my obtuseness, although that did explain a lot. The other problem was that in Yunan Province they speak heavily accented Chinese at best, dialect at worst. Back in the hotel room where the television announcers spoke with a squeaky clean Beijing accent and everything had subtitles, I could understand a lot. Why didn’t the locals walk around with subtitles? It was as if I’d learned English from an Internet teacher in London and made my first trip abroad to Biloxi.

I got cleaned up and went out for my second sally of the morning, hoping to get my hair cut. I passed a decrepit hair salon with a bored hairdresser standing outside with her hands saucily on her hips, daring any passers-by to come in for a trim.

“Haircut?” I asked.

“Of course!”

“How much?”

“$2.50.”

“Deal.”

She sat me down and got work. We chatted and I mentioned wanting to visit Pu’er.

“Pu’er? You like tea?”

“I love tea.”

“Pu’er tea is the best. I have a friend who is from Pe’er. I will introduce you to my friend. My friend has a tea farm in Pu’er. Friends. Okay? I will make you hao pengyou. Come back in half an hour, okay?”

Despite the danger words of “hao pengyou,” I agreed. I didn’t have anything to do anyway, so why not get murdered? I left her excitedly talking to her pengyou on the phone. She had been speaking to me nonstop about the pengyou for about twenty minutes the second I mentioned Pu’er, and I understood basically none of it, only nodding and saying “Hao,” when it was obviously time for me to say something.

She spoke with a crazy thick accent and I was mildly concerned about the friend and what I had agreed to. I thought the friend was perhaps going to drive me to Pu’er and show me around, but wasn’t sure, and then I also wondered about the wisdom of taking off with a stranger who was so sure she had found a hao pengyou, i.e. a sucker. Still, the haircut would have been good for $50, and a Hollywood movie star cut for the $2.50 it actually cost. I wandered around for half an hour and came back.

Meizi was very happy to see me, and a cluster of young men were standing around her, although they turned out to be with the adjacent shop, a motorbike repair place.

“Watch my store!” she said, and they all grinned as she had obviously told them about the hao pengyou, and off we went.

I tried to keep track of the streets and turns as we walked farther and farther from the beaten path, which was hardly well beaten.

“There!” Meizi pointed. Her friend was on the other side of a busy street, raising a hand and smiling. I was relieved to see that the friend was a woman and not another cluster of motorcycle mechanics holding large tools. Maybe we would be driving to Pu’er after all.

“Are we going to Pu’er now?” I asked, but they were talking excitedly and paid no attention to me.

We kept going down side streets until we came to a gate. “This is Xiao Lin’s house,” Meizi said.

“Oh, well,” I thought. “I hope the kidnapping quarters are comfortable.”

We entered and as the heavy iron gate slammed behind me I saw we were in a garden. Against one of the enclosing walls was a small tea ceremony table with a large chair in the center and a carved wooden bench opposite.

Xiao Lin sat in the chair and motioned me onto the bench, facing her. Meizi sat off to my side. “Would you like to try the new tea or the old tea?”

I had no idea what was going on, other than that, at a minimum, tea was going to be drunk. “New?”

“Okay!” Xiao Lin said brightly, and reached into a large wooden crate, taking out a small bag of tea. She and Meizi spoke without pause and I understood nothing, not so much as a word. It occurred to me that they were speaking in dialect. It would take me pages and pages to describe how Xiao Lin prepared the tea, and the tools and accoutrements involved, but suffice it to say it was complex, and what was more unusual, the tea cups were only slightly larger than thimbles. This was a tasting. The teapot itself was quite small, and like the teacups was made of glass so you could see the color of the tea.

Xiao Lin poured my first cup, which was delicious, and then told me to smell the cup as soon as it was empty. The aroma was so sweet and complex, it filled my nose and ran through my palate like a gentle aromatic current. I mimicked Xiao Lin as she tested each sip, swishing and swashing the tea around in her mouth.

She continued to brew and pour and brew and pour until we had drunk I don’t know many cups. “Are you hungry?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Yes, a little.”

She called loudly and a servant appeared. After a minute the servant began bringing out dishes heaped with chicken, sausage, celerich, steamed rice, pickles, and fruit. The chicken was all on the bone and still had two huge black chicken legs with feet attached.

“Country food,” she said. “Healthy for you.” I passed on the claws.

With lunch done she smiled and said “Now let’s try the old tea.” She carefully removed a wheel of dried tea from its paper wrapper and showed me the date, 2004. “It is thirteen years old, very good.” She took out a small screwdriver and rather indelicately hacked off a corner and put it in the teapot.

Xiao Lin’s family has the only CERES certified organic tea farm in Yunan, and she had the servant bring out the certificate. The tea was ready and we drank it. It was indeed delicious, free of any bitterness at all, smooth and fresh and completely clean on the palate with no aftertaste, but I’m not sure I would have waited thirteen years for it.

Plus, no one seemed to be in a hurry to set off to Pu’er, so I kicked back and drank cup after thimbleful of rare tea, water gurgling in the pond, listening to the two women talk endlessly. One of the other side effects of untethering was paying less attention to time. When I checked my watch almost three hours had passed. I had drunk at least a hundred of the tiny thimblefuls, maybe more, and although I had lost count my bladder hadn’t. It stood up and roared.

“May I use the bathroom?” I asked. It was more of a desperate plea than a polite request.

I entered the large house only to see that it wasn’t so much a house as a business office. Along the far wall was a display case filled with round after round of paper-wrapped Pu’er tea wheels. I used the bathroom and when I came out the two women were standing in front of the display case.

“Would you like to buy some tea?” Xiao Lin asked.

“Sure,” I said, relieved to finally know the shot, and even more relieved that she hadn’t called me her hao pengyou.

“Which one would you like?” she asked, a trick question because nothing had a price tag.

“Which would you recommend?”

“You seemed to like the old tea?”

“Yes.”

“Then this one.”

“How much is it?”

“30,000 yuan.”

I did the arithmetic, $500. I had brought a total of $700 cash for the entire trip. “Uh, no.” The whole operation was way out of my league and I started backing for the door, afraid some kung-fu security guard would jump out and demand payment for all the rare tea I’d drunk.

“It’s okay. I have a cheap one for 15,000.”

“No,” I said, reaching for my wallet. I pulled out about sixty bucks and handed it to her. “Thank you for the lovely afternoon.”

Both women held up their hands in dismay. “We are friends! Hao pengyou! No money, please.”

At the utterance of the dreaded words, I placed the cash on the desk and turned to go. It had been an amazing afternoon but I was getting worried. Xiao Lin saw me set down the cash and ran off into another room, reappearing with a round of tea, and shoving it into my hand. “Because hao pengyou.” We were at a stalemate, so I took it, smiled, and left.

Back outside the compound I tried to retrace my steps. Somehow I found a main street, too, took out my map, got oriented, and headed back to the hotel as the sun set. I managed to slam a bowl of fiery noodles before staggering into my room. It had taken three hours to get back to Hotel Celerich. My back, legs, and feet ached. I fell immediately to sleep.

END

———————–

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