Tuesday, January 17, 2012

From the New World

I just ate xihongshi chaojidan, and I feel good. I've been living the incredible human achievement of the settled life, but that geyser's about to blow, and I'll soon be back on the old steel frame.

I arrived in the Western Australian city of Perth. I took a plane here. Planes move very quickly, much faster than bicycles alone, but bicycles in boxes move very quickly on planes. Bicycles in boxes quickly become bicycles out of boxes, with a few wrenches at the airport. That confused morning I made my way from the airport to my couchsurfing host's house in the coastal suburb of Fremantle, on the Indian Ocean, where I am now.

I came here with intentions of making money. I had not budgeted to come to Australia, in fact, I had not budgeted to travel further than Hong Kong, but due to some unplanned events, I had some cash left over. Here's what happened:

Jaco and I were just out for a bike ride in Tajikistan one day in August, eating almonds, apricots and dates on the summit of 4655m Akbaital Pass in the Pamir Mountains. Len Collingwood had just scalped his newest high altitude victim, and had departed down the other side when a converted military jeep cum 4WD RV with Austrian plates crested the pass. Its drivers whose names I regretfully forget gave us some water, and stopped for a chat. They had planned on driving through Tajikistan, and crossing into Kyrgyzstan to do a month of cruising around before crossing into China for a few months of exploring the country and Tibet. To drive a car in China, you need at least one permit, a state-employed guide with you at all times, and lots of money. It is virtually impossible to obtain these three things. But they did it, and informed us that their travel agency had told them that the border (Sary-Tash via Irkeshtam Pass) we were all planning on crossing would be closed in just four days for an indefinite amount of time due to ethnic violence in Kashgar at the beginning of the month. Now, Jaco and I had planned on doing a three week loop through Kyrgyzstan for several reasons. One is that there is a bird of prey festival in August, and we wanted to see that. Since the border with China would be closed however, do we take the risk to spend three weeks in Kyrgyzstan to find that we couldn't enter China on the date we wanted to? If we couldn't cross at that border, we would have to obtain a Kazakhstan visa, and ride through Kazakhstan and cross into China from there, which was much further north and would have to involve a side trip to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan to get the visa. Then who is to say that we could cross that border on the dates we would have wanted to?

We took the surer option, and rode straight to China, and consequentially only spent 1.5 days in Kyrgyzstan instead of the three planned weeks. Sorrow quickly faded into revelry as we ate our first pork dishes since Georgia when we arrived in Kashgar (exception: post-baseball pork belly from Italy on our first night in Azerbaijan). Not spending 3 weeks in Kyrgyzstan also saved us three weeks-worth of budget. This was ultimately how I was able to afford my Australian work/holiday visa and plane ticket here from Hong Kong.

So here I am. The first order of business when I arrived was to find a job and augment my personal wealth, which upon arrival rested confidently at $19.00 US. From all accounts, this would be easy. I guarded myself in the highest keep behind lots of alligator infested moats and huge walls with minions dumping hot oil on invading optimism. I could only think of my most recent job search, in Summer 2009 which took me from Berkeley to Eugene to Portland, lasted three months and was a rather demoralizing experience. But things would be different here, I was told by the intrepid ones that came before me: "You can find hospitality jobs in a second, or farmwork, or work with cattle and other beasts, tame and wild." So there I was, spending $10 on a pint of the last IPA I would have for a while, considering my options watching the World Sailing Championships, which happened to follow me here.

I headed to the Fremantle public markets. There was a stand called "Soulchef" selling "authentic Mexican salsa" and offering free samples. In a tactic to delay my hunger, I slithered over to Soulchef and stuck a chip in some sauce they called pico de gallo. More like pico de gallows. It was brown and viscous, not the way I knew pico de gallo to be: chunky. A rooster should be able to pick up the chopped tomatoes and onions with its beak. I inquired at the stand, and a Dutch guy ensured me it was authentic. I then asked if there was any work available, and he handed me the boss's card and said email a resume. So I did, got hired the next day, and started work a few days later with the promise of 40-50 hours a week at $19.97 base pay. I've held this job since, working weekends at the Swan Lounge Cafe pouring coffee and cutting things in the kitchen. We share the building, the Swan Hotel, with a bar and a venue in the basement. Thursdays are skimpy days in the bar, where the bartenders forget to put their clothes on or something. It's metal night in the basement, so the whole place thumps with the most righteous double kick drums. Sometimes there are cool shows on Fridays, but usually it's pretty quiet. Same for Saturdays. We used to be open Sundays, but now we're closed. Goodbye hours. I've had to say goodbye to most of my hours. The 40-50 hours promised turned to a spoken 30, though I've never worked more than 28 in a week. This week, my glorious last, I'm scheduled for a mammoth 5. So it's time to go.

And go I will, south, in search of eagles, once my bike is back in order. My bike was in serious disrepair after putting 16,000km on it and never switching the chain (glory be to this chain! Sram PC-90 if anyone cares). When one switches such a chain, it is necessary to switch all the gears fore and aft at the same time. I looked for the fore gears in Hong Kong to no avail, and after several days of searching for the oddly sized rings here, I was in despair. Enter Captain Walker.

Captain Drew Walker runs the one of the finest bike shops I have ever known in my 12+ years of cruising around on two wheels (Craig's Bike Shop in Grinnell, Iowa being the only shop worthy of comparison). The Captain helms a small room with a sliding door housed in the Fibonacci Centre, at 19 Blinco St., a small residential street. The Fibonacci Center is an artist space, with a very good café in front with very limited hours. The Captain carries the basics of bike maintenance for retail in his shop, and I wasn't expecting much help in the chainrings department. When I approached him (being at least the 5th bike shop I had asked about chainrings) about my problem he easily and swiftly directed me to a British website (www.chainreactioncycles.com) from which he ordered most of his parts. He listed my rings on his next order, and they arrived in a week. Wrong size! What could have been disaster became another episode of the humbling generosity that I am so eager to return the second I can. He lent me a spare set of his cranks and chainrings off of one of his bikes, for me to use during the week or more that it would take for the new rings to arrive. What a fine merchant. This is Community.

One of the finest things about traveling outside of the Western world is a sort of relaxed, anything goes mentality. In rural areas, lacking insurance and liability, if it works, do it, get paid. In the West, for reasons that make such heartbreaking sense, the simple and possible become impossible. Like not being able to take bikes on buses, or not being able to get passage across the Pacific on a freighter. I can't imagine many bike shops lending me spare parts for a week so I can still ride to work. The simplest things become complicated, and everyone suffers for it. Captain Walker triumphantly reverses this trend in his simple and efficient stall in the Fibonacci Center. And his business is thriving, which it should.

So my bike will be in order, and ride on I will. I am heading south to big old eucalyptus groves, and wine country. Also some big waves around Margaret River. This Californian tried surfing for the first time ever over the weekend, and laughed like a child the whole time. My ears are still full of water, and every now and then when I lean over water falls out of my nose. I also jumped off a 30 foot cliff into the river which was absolutely nuts, I am still suffering from a terrible case of the willies whenever I think about that.

I plan on leaving Sunday, unless I can find a decent place to watch the NFC championship game, which airs here on ESPN Australia or oneHD at 10.30am on Monday. And then I'll be off.