Tianjin?

This is near where I am living. The ferris wheel bridges the river, and is a pedestrian bridge, highway overpass, and amazingly awesome, all in one. It even plays 'Bad Romance.'

Tianjin, China:  heard of it?  Probably not, right?  Tianjin is famous for being the largest city no one has ever heard of.  This city of over 9 million is larger than London, and is the 30th largest city in the world, but yet it doesn’t seem to even be a blip on the international radar.  It is common for people here to have to say to foreigners “I live near Beijing.”  Can’t imagine Londoners saying “I live near Paris” can you?  (It’s the same comparative distance away).  I guess that says something for how freakin’ big the big cities in China are, that a city of over 9 million is only the fifth largest city in China and doesn’t cause even a ripple on the international scene.

I know every word written behind me. Or not.

Ha!  Ok, here is a quiz:  which cities of the following are real, and which ones did I just make up?

1)  Guangzhou

2)  Shenzhen

3)  Chongqing

4)  Dongguan

5)  Wuhan

6)  Nanjing

7)  Hangzhou 

It’s a trick.  All of those are real Chinese cities, so hat’s off if you knew this.  Also, all are at least twice as large as Los Angeles.  Shanghai is over four and a half times larger than L.A.  So, maybe that might explain why a city larger than London can be ignored by all of these other biggie’s crowding the scene of difficult to pronounce Chinese mega-cities.

An ice fisherman in the heart of the city.

What brings me here to Tianjin -which is  a question a lot of people here seem to view as worth asking– is bikes.  Tianjin at one point had the highest percentage of people riding their bikes ever in the history of the entire Universe.

Garbage collectors in their working-bikes. In the background is "Western Church Cafe Bar. I am not sure what it is, but it isn't any of these things from when I tried spying through the windows (it was closed for New Years). I can only presume it is a horrible front for stupid spies.

And it was phenominally great too. Lake Baikal great.  For comparison purposes, the largest major city in the United States with the highest percentage of trips conducted by bicycle is greener than green Portland, which is 6% of all trips.  Copenhagen is the largest major European city with the highest bicycle modal share of 32%.  And what was Tianjin like just as recently as the early 1990’s?  79%. There are still a lot of bikes here, but have you heard?  Things are changing in China.

I think it is all but impossible to be ignorant of the fact that China is modernizing, and rapidly, but frankly despite trying to understand this before coming here, I still didn’t properly understand.  I essentially understood this to mean, ‘yes, China is quickly becoming up to first-world Western Standards, but, asterix, it’s still has a lot of catching up to do.’  In a lot of ways I have found Beijing and Tianjin to be equal to or even in some ways far more modern than America or Europe.

A really impressive graduate from Hendrix College (the Harvard of America) has helped me in preparing for being in China, and I explained my shock upon arriving on how modern everything is in the major cities.  He told me that was a common American viewpoint.  He would have American film makers asking for places to film that are storyboards right out of China 50 years ago, or even 300 years ago, as they imagine China being like now; while Europeans are looking to film in, for example, the state of the art train stations or next to the bullet trains that are everywhere.

One of Beijing's TWO train terminals specifically for bullet trains.

At first in coming to China I was really dismayed.  I knew bicycles were being replaced in the streets of China, but it would be like saying in the late 1800s buffallo were being “replaced” from the Great Plains.  For comparison purposes, below are two pictures decpicting rush-hour in Beijing.

Rush Hour in Beijing, 1984.

Rush Hour in Beijing, 2011.

One is a historical photo I stumbled across from 1984.  The other was taken by a friend while we were in Beijing.  See if you can spy any differances.

I’ve been hunkered down a lot lately trying to do some background reading, so I’ve been sneaking into the Holiday Inn, about a mile from my unheated, septic-smelling hostel with no windows.  The Holiday Inn is the only place I have been able to find that has the not-so picky trifecta of being heated, with wifi, and preferably with a comfortable chair.

It is interesting being here in China seeing how a lot of western companies have reinvented themselves for China.  One good, and frustrating example (for a guy who hasn’t had pizza since October 18th.  137 days and counting.) is Pizza Hut and Papa John’s, both of which have glass chandeliers in em’ and the cheapest pizza (that isn’t the size of a tea saucer) is $25.  No thanks.  Another example, and the source for this digression, is Holiday Inn, which has fashioned itself into a 5 Star Chain, where a cup of coffee costs over $6.  Business aside, that’s a crime against humanity charging that much for a cup of black gold and life-giving pizza.

This is a sign out front of a Catholic Church in Tianjin. What would Jesus think?

In addition to heat, wifi, and a good chair, the Inn also has a spa with wonderfully poor security out front, a handy international business center, and a lot of the other unnecessary accruements associated with luxury.  Behind the Holiday Inn is a bajillion year old Buddhist temple whose sign says it was nearly completely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but will “once again extend all the way to the river.”  Never mind the fact that there is a mall and a forty-story Holiday Inn-the-way.

Same church, same sign. I guess after the Cultural Revolution you can't be too picky on what gets destroyed.

I figure they probably think that if they, as an institution, can survive foreign occupation, wars, communism, and the cultural revolution, Holiday Inn too will come and go.  All things must pass.

In addition to having a comfortable chair (a surprising rarity I am finding in China), heat, and wifi, the Holiday Inn also has staff that speaks varying degrees of English (also a rarity).  It doesn’t always work though. For instance, I went up to the conceirge, and speaking as sloooooowly as I could and enounciating as best as I could I explained very clearly “I. have. gone. to. the. post-office. for. three. days. and. while. they. are. open. they. are. not. accepting. any. mail.  No. one. speaks. English. there.  Could. you. please. explain. to. me. where. I. should. go. to. mail. this. letter?”  He then looked at me, and said, “so… what you are saying is you want to buy a new car.”

When not trying to buy a new car, my book-worm antics in the Holiday Inn have pretty clearly shown me that despite what I intuitively thought, the rise of auto-ownership is not due to the rising affluence of the middle class in China.  While this recent affluence is a sliver of an issue, going back to the demise of the bison metaphor, this would be like saying the downfall of the animal is due to their susceptibility to 22 caliber bullets.  True, but…

Cargo Bike: A Really Good Example of The Practical Versatility of Bicycles.

In a nut-shell, the Government has been prioritizing car-ownership for a myriad of bullheaded reasons.  Foremost, is a desire to model China into the world’s Detroit, and has consequently prioritized domestic car-ownership as a way to stimulate profitable domestic car production.

In China there are a spectrum on how cities treat bikes, with most aligning now towards "anti-bike", and very, very few towards "pro-bike". (My next city, Hangzhou is pro-bike). Tianjin is closer to the end of the spectrum of pro-bike, but images like this show you it has a long way to go for the majority of commuters who cycle everyday.

Many of the major cities (city governance isn’t a giant monolithic centrally controlled hand, but rather each city has a lot of leeway in its transportation policies) have also chosen to accomodate the dramaticly congesting streets in their cities by removing the bicycle lanes and replacing them with driving lanes for cars. Prioritizing cars over bikes in these mega-crowded mega-cities is obviously perilous, especially when you consider that a car takes up 9 times the urban footprint as a person traveling by bicycle, and there just isn’t that room to give in these huge cities.

It's the bomber hat. It brings out the best in people.

Another factor in the Government’s frequent adversarial role in bicycles is prestige.  It’s sadly ironic that in many U.S. and European cities mayors and urban planners are wishing their cities were more like here in China –compact, with imense levels of cycling– while Chinese officials as a whole view bicycle use as backwards, the way we’d imagine traveling around a U.S. city in a mule-drawn wagon.  The general consensus amongst Chinese policy makers here is the only good public transit is mass-transit:  busses, subways, and anything shiny and new (and preferably expensive) like they’re doing over in America and Europe.  China is building a freakish amount of subways, for instance.  This year alone the country is going to add 900 miles of subways at the relatively cheap cost of $100 million USD per mile.  Yet, as one news article reads “However, despite its rapid expansion, Beijing’s underground transportation system has not been able to solve the city’s traffic problems as subway services are still considered insufficient in the crowded downtown areas.”  Ditto with the buses China is likewise prioritizing, although to a slightly lesser extent.

It seems a national contest to see how ridiculous you can dress up your dog and get away with it. Bumble-bee dog with wings is my favorite, but this one just looks THUG.

The problem with buses is that they work great when they work, but if they have to travel through congested roads, they get held up just like any other Joe-schmoe alone in their car.  (This is excluding BRT).  While China has one of the lowest percentages of car-ownership out of any major nation in the world, even the few that do own cars are enough to throw a wrench in the cogs of inner-city trafic flow.  To give you an idea of just how many vehicles there are, in Beijing, China’s second-largest city, there are over 2,000 cars added to the streets per day, and over 120,000 taxis operating at any given time.  If present rates continue it is consensus that even if substantial roadworks continue throughout the country they can’t keep up with forecasted auto-growth.

Don't do it. I am not sure what it is saying not to do, but it looks like it is saying "don't play the board game 'Operation'."

And this is certainly a problem.  It wasn’t too long ago in the news when a traffic jam outside of Beijing shattered the global record for a traffic jam by lasting for over nine straight days, and stretching over 100 km.  There is a common refrain in sustainable transit advocacy that addressing traffic congestion by building more roads is like dealing with being overweight by loosening your belt buckle.  It alleviates the symptoms of the problem, but ignores and worsens the situation long-term.  For obvious reasons, the most important one being “we can’t function without them” many of the major cities in China are once again reluctantly returning to bicycles.

Garbage loaded into the bed of an electric tricycle.

And so that is the traffic-snarling brouhaha I’ve found myself here in Tianjin.  And while at first I thought the bicycle in China was slowly going the way of the buffalo, the analogy doesn’t hold.  I guess unless people start electrifying bison.  Here there are still a lot of bicycles, although no where near what that historical photo of Beijing shows, or what it was like in its not so distant hey-day.  But bikes here have taken a differant form since their peak about twenty years ago.

I had heard of the rising popularity of electric bikes, or e-bikes, in China and seen plenty of models before, but here in China most e-bikes are completely different.  Basically, there are two models.  The first kind looks just like a bicycle, it can be pedaled, and the only difference is it has a frisbee-sized motor attatched to one of the wheels.  What I had never seen before until coming here is the ever-present “scooter-style electric bicycle” as the trade-industry calls em’.  Basically they are mopeds that are electricly powered, can cruise at 30 mph, and a lot of times these “bicycles” don’t even come with pedals.

This billboard really makes you want to go and buy a sink: am I right or am I right? You too can do this at home!

Some even have three wheels, look like golf-carts and have canopies ontop, with a back row of seats.  The question worth asking is “are these even bicycles?”  I mean, people don’t pedal them, and they don’t even resemble bicycles!

The obvious answer is “no”, so the Government concluded, “yes”, these electric, speeding behemoths are bicycles.  The Chinese government didn’t really know how to classify these things for years, and in some major cities they were prioritized while in others they were banned.  (There are a lot of pros and cons on both sides).  It was only in 2007 that the Chinese government “decided” on how to handle these scooter-style e-bikes, which was, really, to not regulate them at all.  (I presume this is because the mentality of the Chinese government is pretty laid back and easy going).  No restrictions on size, hardly any restrictions on maximum speed (which are ignored by manufacturers, riders, and regulators alike).  The e-bike has been one of those ideas –like the flying car– that have been kicked around for ages, but never really took off.

China began pursuing the technology behind e-bikes as early as the 1960s.  The economics and performance didn’t make it practical, but with the market opened in China, and phenomenal advancements in battery technology, and rising income levels, these bikes can be had for a cool $200-$500 clams.  The government also made the development of e-bikes a national technological priority for the nation in the Ninth five-year plan, back in the late, late 1990’s (too lazy to fact check the date at this point).

Interestingly, while presumably the elderly would benefit the most from e-bikes, out of all demographics they are the least likely to embrace the new technology.

And, considering in a lot of cities, like here in Tianjin, mobility studies find you can get to where you want quicker by e-bike than public transport, biking, or walking, and car-ownership is –thankfully– out of reach for most people, e-bikes make a lot of sense.

The rate at which these electrified bikes have been embraced is phenominal.  It is being reffered to as the largest and quickest revolution in the history of how people move.  These bikes weren’t really that popular, selling only a few hundred thousand up until 2002, which considering the size of the Chinese market is nuthin’.  Then came 2003 and the ideal marketing event occured for these e-bikes:  S.A.R.S.!  Yup, Sudden Accute Respritory Syndrome, which was touted to be the global plauge of the new millenium.  Considering SARS’ rapid rise in China, people weren’t really as excited to sit in crowded subways and buses vertically spooning with contagious strangers.  Go figure.  So, with an affordable e-bike as an alternative that can get you to work just as fast and without unsavory contagions, the number of e-bikes sold skyrocketed to 45 million in a manner of a few years.  I don’t think even excel could graph it.  It’s pretty phenomenal, and no marketing campaign needed.

You might recognize this as the part of the famous Tianjin skyline. Or you might not.

So, while SARS led the mass-exodus away from public transport back to “bikes”, e-bikes haven’t been all that and a bag of potato chips like Chinese policy makers thought when they prioritized em’ just a few years back.   The non-existent regulation has resulted in very-large and heavy bicycles careening in traditionally bicycle and pedestrian zones, and the number of injuries has skyrocketed correspondingly with ownership.  Furthermore, the batteries have a huge chunk of lead in em’, which after two years gets tossed into a landfill that can’t handle it and ground-water seepage is an issue (not as bad as the radioactive water in Arkansas from fraking, but it ain’t good either).  Secondly, the loaf-of-bread-sized batteries are charged from electricity that originates primarily from coal-based power-plants.  These are both issues when you consider the number of e-bikes in less than ten years has risen to 45 million.  So the word on e-bikes?  I don’t know if there is one.  They’re a mixed bag.  They’re far-worse than mass bicycle use, but also far-better, more practical, and economical than these people otherwise clambering into cars, buses, and subways.  Get back to you on that one.

On my second to last day in Tianjin I took a cab to the darkness on the edge of town, where children, delivery trucks, and dogs run amok in the streets, and where the city’s factories are.  It was actually kind of refreashing to see the urban funk of Tianjin because up until that point everything I had seen was spotless and modern. It would be like going to New York City without seeing any rats in the subways, scary people, or smelly alley ways: there is just something quintessentially “city” about these less than savory experiences, that without it, it just feels like one of the fake streets of Disney World.

the electric bicycle assembly line.

Anyways, I took this journey to get my shoes dirty and to see the Flying Pigeon factory.  It might be disappointing to learn they are not manufacturing pigeons, which would have been cool to see, but it is instead The bicycle of China, to the point that the government has taken the now private company’s namebrand as a national heritage namesake.  (I’m not sure what it means, but it sounds important, and people at Flying Pigeon are really scary-proud of that).  The history of the company is pretty interesting.  It’s a Tianjin-based company, and basically right when the dust settled and the weapons were put down after the Communist Revolution, Mao thought it dandy to produce bicycles as they are egalitarian and practical, and one of his underlings liked this small manufacturer in Tianjin.  So, with that rather arbitrary support the company was chosen to manufacture all the bicycles for China.  The name was supposed to be a symbol of peace, but it was translated wrong from “dove” to “pigeon” and so, to speak, they just rolled with it, and, since then, this bird has flown.

What these bicycles meant to people is tough to compare.  I’ve seen some documentries interviewing Chinese from the late 1980’s, and one guy menionted how he had the best of the three kinds of bicycles that Flying Pigeon made, and that essentially made him a chick-magnet, like being in high school and having a Ferrari.  To get any of these company’s bicycles would take over a year’s wage, and at least a year and a half wait.  Yet, the bicycles once delivered, well, delivered.  They were built to last for life, and low-and-behold, while little else of pre-me-being-born Urban China exists, these indestructible tanks are still rolling, and despite all the antagonism from the government at large, in mass-numbers.

The factory itself was really fascinating if you view it as a microcosm of the changes that have transpired in China’s recent history.  Whereas only a few years ago the company had a complete monopoly over China’s 500 million cyclists,  and was state-run, it is now privately run and their domestic market share has shrunk to around 3% (which still ain’t bad).

A good example from the factory showroom of Flying Pigeon THEN and Flying Pigeon NOW.

The company also found their model T approach to bike making, which is essentially “you can have any bike you want as long as it weights two tons and is black” wasn’t winning back their lost slice of the market.  So, Flying Pigeon rapidly tried to get their hands on the pulse of bicycles in China, and in a few short years they had gone from having only three models of bikes (which were essentially two of the same bike, and one with a step-through frame for the lady-comrades), to having over one hundred models of bicycles, with 27 folding bicycles rapidly introduced in 2006 and more models (about 30) of electric bicycles quickly to follow.

This is not a Flying Pigeon bike, but not too far from some of their lower-end products. The best part? This deprecating crap-tastic bike isn't worth the metal the sticker is adhered to. It's like the makers knew this and wanted to rub it into the future owner's stupid face for buying this useless hunk of scrap. This model out-sells their "I'm an Idiot for Buying This" bike.

The factory itself is interesting too.  You may have read about the crazy building boom in China, which is really tough to convey the immense scale of it.  One of the major causes to the boom is that the realestate system under socialism is bananas from a capitalist standpoint.  While under socialism it makes total sense to have the former largest bicycle factory in the world located in the heart of the city as close to its thousands of workers as possible, under capitalism this is like General Motors finding it prudent to build a gigantic auto assembly plant in the heart of Manhatten.  A lot of urban reshuffeling ensued, and where the old Tianjin Flying Pigeon plant was is now a brandnew central business district of the city with sky-scrappers and banks, and banks and sky-scrappers.

The company itself was really interesting in that all that I’ve seen and all that I’ve read on the evolution of bicycles in China was encapsulated in the dreary concrete caverns of the assembly halls.  The shift from socialism to capitalism and the rise of purchasing power was evident in the tons of assorted bicycles on display.  Likewise, the once formidable army of thousands of employees is now a slim payroll of less than 600.  Yet, the roots of the company are quickly evident, from countless pictures of Mao with a bike, to various American and European leaders being given a Flying Pigeon (the original Bush was the most recent to get a sweet set of wheels.  The offer was not extended to me).  Also, the new factory has two assembly halls now; one for bicycles and one for e-bikes.  Even the size of the factory was interesting to contrast.  The old, epic building was famous for being the closest humans have ever gotten to manufacturing almost all of a bicycle under one roof (bicycles are notoriously complex to manufacture, despite their simple parts.  An average bicycle has over 1000 unique parts).  While the old factory had to import only very few parts to assemble its three bikes, the new Flying Pigeon factory only does assembly, and contracts out the rest of production.

 

A random old apartment I thought was pretty. Part of the yet to be rebuilt, older Tianjin. It's like if George Lucas were to re-design the Pompidou Center in Paris.

What else to report on life in Tianjin?  Aside from an entertaining adventure having a sword I was given be confiscated by train-station security who were doing corny ninja-poses with it (I hope they’re playing with it still) while their supervisor was very displeased with them and refused to let me take a photo, there are a few other entertaining events to report:

Other highlights have been funky-street food.  I didn’t think I was much of a person to have “a line” concerning food, but I’ve found here that I do have “a line” seperating animals that are typically friends from animals typically food.

For the sake of the squeamish I opted for this photo of sea horses and lizards on a stick. I can do better if you dare.

Nonetheless, snake was a cool snack, and on one major food market in Beijing I saw a whole medly of “huh?” food.  Sea urchin.  Grass Hopper.  Scorpion.  Sheep Testicle-Kebabs.  Cockroaches.  Sea Horses.  And a few things that are not appetizing as well.

Food is a continual source for adventure here.  Even when I think I know what I am getting, I often don’t.  On one of my first days in China I went into a restaurant and I saw a picture of the local speciality duck fillet.  The picture showed a tiny serving –about the meaty-equivolent of three slices of deli meat.  I was peckish, so I ordered this as well as an appetizing picture of a medium-sized bowl of noodles.  The noodle dish came out first, and it was a mound of noodles about the size of a football.  The duck came second, and was served on two platters, replete with toppings and garnish.  Looking around I realized that I was in a restarunt-type where families order one meal for the whole table, and my “family of one” just opted to order two hearty meals.  As a life-long member of the Clean Plate Club, it was difficult leaving the job unfinished, though I did my best, just to not let the waitstaff think I didn’t intend to order enough food to serve 8 hungry people.

(At the point when this entry was begun) it is Lunar New Years, and the city feels like it is in a war-zone.  And, oddly enough, I am the only person who seems on edge.  While when some 10 year-old boys launch a noise-making firework that sounds like a cannon-blast only a few meters from us, I am practically on the sidewalk thinking “INCOMING!“, while the octogenarian next to me didn’t even  blink.  New Years is interesting.  And never-ending.  About a week in I wanted to point out that if they didn’t wind it up quickly, the year would be about done, so dammit, things should start opening back up.  My inner-Scrouge nature was pretty-short lived though.  The first day of New Years was amazing.  I went walking for a couple hours throughout the night in Tianjin and the skyline was aglow with massive fireworks lighting up the skyline from every angle.  It was beautiful, and on a scale of a massive fourth of July celebration in a major U.S. city, but for hours and occuring everywhere at once.  And the last part, location, is a bit of a concern.  Admitedly, it does look pretty freakin’ awesome seeing a huge firework explode green embers off of the glass facade of a fourty-story high rise, but you have to reckon it’s probably not the smartest of ideas to have millions of people setting off explosives in their pajamas (often slightly inebriated) adjacent to skyscrappers.  There is actually a pretty good ancedote about this…

It's like the Chinese version of 'Free Willy', only with eel-fish instead of orcas.

CCTV, the Chinese controled telivision building in Beijing, is an amazing, modern building and is one of the landmarks of the city.  But in a fitting example of censorship, last year on Chinese New Years CCTV lit off fireworks, and presumably things didn’t go as planned because they blew up the building next door.  Woopsies-poopsies.  And the best part?  They didn’t even cover it in the news, even though there was, and still is, a hulking charred skeleton some thirty stories in the air right next to it.  Foreign pundits pointed out that not only did CCTV create the biggest news story of the New Year, but they also failed to cover it.

The rest of New Years is pretty low-key, and very family orientated.

It is only logical to throw eel-fish into icy water to honor your elders.

Consequently, not much on public display for me, but on my walks I would take a couple of times a day I cross a part of the frozen-over river where people pray over some little eel-fish and then “free” them by throwing them in a hole in the ice.  This is near the ferris wheel bridge.  I think this is a good contrast between Western New Years and Chinese New Years: We don’t throw eel-fish in ice-holes.

Going back to CCTV, censorship of the news doesn’t affect me here, because the government’s policy is, apparently, it doesn’t matter if it is in English cause no one here is going to read it anyways.  (That should give you some idea on how tough it is coming across English speaking people here).  What does affect me is the government’s censorship of sports.

For the entire NFL season I wasn’t able to see a single game, and I was darned if I was going to miss the Packers in the Super Bowl.  The game wasn’t on telivision, so my only option was to find a sports bar to go to at 6:00 am.  In Tianjin, a city of over 9 million, larger than London, how many sports bars do you think there are?  One.  Nonetheless, it was a fun and odd experiance.  I hadn’t been around anywhere near that many Americans since I left the States over seven months ago.  Watching the Super Bowl in the early morning is an odd phenomenon.  The way the American ex-pats decided to handle it can be broken into two camps.  The first can be classified as coffee drinkers.  The second group could be classified by “F’ it, it’s the Super Bowl.

Important to note that there were more ex-pat Packer fans than Steelers fans.

I’ll have another.” For the second group it was popular dicussion amongst the more hydrated what time they were going into work after that (it was monday morning our time).  One man was a very resectable Packers fan and to celebrate set off a bunch of firecrackers to celebrate, ala` Chinese New Year.  At halftime a group of Chinese photographers came in to take pictures, of what I could only presume could be classified as “Americans in their natural habitat.”  In my online slouthing to find this place, the only article I came across on the build-up for the Super Bowl for Chinese viewers was a guide for Chinese to fake understanding football in the horrible event you are invited by your American co-workers to a Super Bowl party.

Another thing that cracks me up here is having strangers coming up to me and asking for their photos to be taken with me.  This first happened when I went to Tianamin Square in Beijing.  One person asked and it was like a dam broke.  Seven group photographs latter and I was out’a there.  (Reckon’ it was a combination of my being Western, tall, and having a bomber-hat on).  Nonetheless, it is still entertaining, and you have to wonder what they do with the pictures.  I mean, when they are showing these pictures to their friends and family do they tell the truth, that this is some stranger I walked up to, or do they make up a story?  More importantly, do they have the photo printed onto a coffee mug?  I would like to think so.

This is Ernesto Perez. He teaches dogs, children, parrots, and other animals to tap dance, and then markets them towards auto dealerships. He showed me his trademark routine. It's pretty good. He is also training to become an olympic fencer. It just looks like we are holding hands in the photo. We're not.

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Trans Siberian Railroad: Mongolia

Sunrise over The Gobi Desert. So delicious, more like the Gobi Dessert. Serve With Coffee.

Since life on the train was the same through Mongolia, I won’t be wasting any more words talking about the experience here.  Rather, I’ll use this space for pictures to show you what Mongolia was like, which will really say it better anyways than I ever could.  On a level, it is somewhat ironic that in a fellowship, which I have set out to study how bicycles are used by people, has taken me now to the two least population dense countries in the world (the other being Namibia).  Nonetheless, transportation here more than perhaps anywhere else is of vital importance, in that to live in this berran and inhospitable lunar landscape you have to be, as my Grandma reprimanded me once for being, “a god-damned nomad.”  So, here are the pictures, and enjoy, but before you go any further, I sugest you look at these photos while listening to your favorite train song.  While a toughie, I’d have to recommend ‘Slow Train’ by Solomon Burke.

 

Trans Mongolian Bar Car: The Greatest Bar Ever? Judge From the Following Photos.

Even more so than Namibia, traveling through here you can't help but wonder how people actually live here. Plants can't even live here, for Pete's sake.

A little more south, a little latter in the day, the snow is gone but not the cold.  We are thoroughly into the Gobi.  As far as I could see there ain’t no roads in Mongolia, so the VERY rare driver just drives paralel to the train in order to not get lost in the nothing.  It is odd, disconcerting, and rewarding, like watching the filming to an action movie, seeing a semi going 80 mph off road running over bushes and getting occasionally semi-air-born.  Other “god-damned nomads”, only these ones had some pretty sweet yurts, especially compared to my backpack which still smells of the avocado and shampoo that it was marinated in the Mozambican sun.  Close up of another yurt near the railway.  Have to presume they move near the railway / impromptu roadway to meet cars, because it would otherwise be near impossible to find anyone in the Gobi. 

Mongolia: Wild Horses couldn't drag me away. According to a biologist onboard these wild stallions are the "rarest wild horses in the world" and because they live in the Gobi they are short and fat, like hershey kisses with hooves.

Spent a long time trying to figure out what these frequently occurring mounds were from.  My best guess?  Ever seen Bugs Bunny?  It looks like the holes Elmer Fudd stands outside of pointing his riffle.  After I pointed this out, the bar car just started calling them “waskly wabbits.”  And Then we figured out what was causing the “wascally wabbits”…  Yeah!  Wild camels!  And ain’t they a beautiful sight?  (for the record, I still have no clue what was causing those mounds).

My humps. My humps.

And with some quick frisbee at a stop…

and then it was a quick Mongolian sunset...

...and then it was into China the next day...

...and onto Beijing. THE END

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Trans Siberian Railroad!

So, after that sprint across Europe (previous blog), what was the train to Beijing like?  The following is about life onboard the 4,735 mile journey from Moscow, Russia to Beijing, China via the Trans-Siberian Railroad for the Russian portion. While I think ultimately every kind of beauty is indescribable (as it is more of an emotional response rather than an actual state of being) describing Siberia in winter is an especially tricky type of beauty to try to paint a picture for you.  Or, rather, to paint well.  Yet to do so, it is safe to assume one would need a loooooooot of white paint. Life on the Trans Siberian Railroad is an odd thing.  First and foremost is the sense of time, or rather, the lack thereof.  On the journey from Moscow to Beijing five time zones are crossed, and rather than having to continually adjust the clocks onboard (as was done aboard the cargo ship) we always operate on Moscow Time.  While perhaps pragmatic, five hours difference just shy of the Arctic Circle in winter results in waking up at sunset.  Consequently, one’s body rhythms are in constant disagreement with life on board the train.  Interestingly enough, this has always been a feature of the Trans Siberian Railroad.   I’ve read a passenger’s book on the Trans Siberian Railroad,  and guests way back even in the 1890’s were commenting on how the discordant time results in an almost continual trance-like feel. One thing passengers in the early 1890s probably didn’t have to contend with were teenage Swedes drunkenly throwing ramen noodles in the hallway to the accompaniment of Snoop Dogg from portable IPOD speakers.  While I’ve never read Dr. Zhivago, the snippet of the plot synopsis I just read on Wikipedia makes me suspect this wasn’t in either the book or the film either.  In ONLY my car are there young Westerners –12 of us on the train, and by luck(?) we are all in the same train car on this massive train.  I can’t understand why this happened.  From all the reviews I’ve read online, and from two passengers on the train who have done the Trans Siberian Railroad twice before this, this never ever not in a million years occursEveryone else who has done the trip before complained that on the Trans Siberian Railroad they had to share their cabin with aromatic fat Russian men or Mongolian smugglers with a high propensity to bring smelly rubbery fish into the cabin.  While my Swedish and Norwegian language skills are now very …interesting (if ‘interesting’ is a synonym for knowing dirty phrases and how to say the word “trousers”), I feel amiss having not had the experience afforded by the other cars or on the usual train. While living with smelly Russians and fishy Mongolians is perhaps not something to make for a romantic getaway, my experience just seems like a big fluke that three different groups of Scandinavian twenty-somethings all decided to do the Trans Siberian railroad and parrrrrty it up on my train.  Yet, very thankfully the short walk from our club on wheels the party culture is quickly blanketed by the undeniable fact that one is in Siberia in freakin’ winter, baby. The most exciting aspect on being on the Trans Siberian Railroad is the stops at stations, which are typically 6 to 9 hours in between.  While these stations are typically Soviet utilitarian monstrosities, it is not the stations themselves that are the novelty, but rather just realizing you are in the coldest inhabited place on earth, where temps have gotten to -69 degrees Celsius (-92 degrees Fahrenheit), a world record.  It is fun laughing after you realize you had just said in all sincerity, “well, it’s warmer here, and not really too bad outside, really!  The station clock tower says it is only -30 degrees [-20 degrees Fahrenheit].”  At these stops –especially the “cold” ones- you have to take your pictures quick.  I soon came to realize that the AA batteries in my camera would freeze and stop working in about 3 or 4 minutes, and the inner-workings of my camera would become so sluggish that all the pictures would blur due to the phenomenal cold.

The Coldest Photo Taken Where My Camera "worked": -31 F.

And another thing:  I don’t know a thing about atmospherics, acoustics, or physics, but one thing that is truly amazing about these stops, especially at night, is how silent everything is.  It is almost a vacuous silence that you have to imagine what being in space sounds like.   At these stops there isn’t really much to do, and if it is both coincidently daytime locally and for your body there will be Russian women in fur boots, fur hats, fur coats, and fur gloves and probably fur underwear selling from old-fashioned steal-runner sleds food items for passengers while they stand in the bitter cold all day.

If you buy two, it's cheaper.

How do they do it?  Items are typically of the prepackaged variety.  Typically ramen noodles, which is popular on our train, as the Russian food car is both rich in price and poor in quality, with only the Salyunka –a borsch soup with ox tongue- proving palatable and affordable.* Anyways, the women outside also sell some notable local items, which vary at each stop, though the pastries and freaky “dried” rubbery fish are the highlights.  One a highlight for its taste, the other for “dude, I dare you’s”; you can probably guess which.  After a few misadventures, I also cottoned on to the common trick by these Russian women after I wound up paying $10 USD for two cold hotdogs in one bun: their trick is to quote a price using hand gestures (due to the language barrier) and then when it comes time to pay insist upon the “agreed upon” price being more.  The reason for the $10 dog is this:  one doesn’t want to be left at a remote Siberian train station in winter, where all of your things are on the train, and the next Trans Siberian Railroad train is in a week.

Local women selling out in the cold.

So, being out of sight of the train, even for a second, understandably, feels like a second too long and you’ll pay the stupid price because your mind is 100% elsewhere and not realizing how many damn Rubles you are forking over.   On the tangent of food, the Trans Siberian Railroad is very interesting.  Each country the train goes through provides the food far for its country.

ABBA!

As I am on the Trans-Mongolian branch of the Trans Siberian railroad, which goes through, in order, Russia, Mongolia, and China we will have all three of these countries’ cooking in that order.  For Russia we certainly got the short end of the stick.  Interestingly, the way Russia now operates (can’t help but guess it was different Back in the USSR) is that each Russian food car is a privately run family business, and thus what one gets is a crapshoot concerning both quality and price.  In this regard, like I said, we got shafted for the days in Russia.

Warning: Siberia is only for the Tough

The menu itself is entertaining though, with some items only written in Russian while some are in “English” where a good one third of the words are still in the Russian alphabet.  Yet, still, the English portions offer some gems.  As hard as it is to imagine how it would be served, not only is “Asia” on the menu for a mere 300 rubles, but it is optionally served “With The Bird” for only 50 rubles more.  Salad from Language with kravetkamh (my favorite!) is also available, while one of their soups proudly advertises it comes with “nausea.”  Yet, while these tempting options are all on the menu, frequently they remain there unless it is the easiest to make or the most expensive item available.  Want a single piece of chicken only?  “We. Chicken. No.”  Chicken, language, potatoes, ox tongue, for a huge sum more though is available.  “This. Have. Yes.”  Hmmm…

Historic steam engines are still used occasionally on parts of the Russian rail system.

Due to the unfortunate circumstances that have resulted in the seemingly unprecedented Siberian Railroad party car, I have found myself spending almost all of my time in the restaurant car, as it is a quiet, sunny sanctuary with a wonderful amount of huge windows.  This is undeniably my favorite part of the train.  There is an old Russian women with a laptop which she has kept the original packaging stickers on, and believes the only way to listen to ABBA is by never turning it off.  Yet, after umpteenth times hearing “Money Money” while looking at nothing but forests, periodic hunting cabins of semi-nomadic hunters, and very occasional villages, you don’t feel you are “living in a rich man’s world”, although it is assuredly a wonderful song for now and forever more associating with what was only until recently the U.S.S.R. And that is the other obvious best thing of the Trans Siberian Railroad: looking out the windows at the world –or more like the otherworld– outside. Just because they break up the routine, the very infrequent communities elicit the greatest attention.  They only seem to come in two varieties.  The first of which is heartless, drab, industrial and decaying Soviet outposts, where the architecture of the factories harmonizes with that of the Soviet-made housing.

Abandoned Soviet Factory or Communist Housing?

The guidebook tellingly described one such town as being “famous for producing ¼ of Russia’s aluminum, almost ¼ of its refrigerators, and millions of car tires a year.”  Another town’s only “Fun Fact!” was the area code you would have to dial to reach there.  Fun! But before you book a bed and breakfast here for a week or two in either of these places, don’t rule out the must-see Tomsk, which “achieved international notoriety when a radioactive waste reprocessing plant blew up at nearby Tomsk-7 on April 6, 1993 contaminating some 120 sq km.”  Interpret as you may, but it is strongly suggested if you do visit Tomsk to bring your own bottled water for drinking.  Fun! As dystopian as the Soviet legacy in Siberia is, it also feels like essentially nothing has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  This is, more or less, agreed upon because nothing here really has changed –or at least of substance—since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In this way it is a pretty darn cool feeling in that it feels both like you are a cold war spy deep in the heart of where you don’t belong, and a time traveler in a country that ceased to exist almost twenty years ago.  For this, I appreciate these places for their conceptual appeal, but it is the old pre-Soviet villages that are undeniably the best reminder of civilization for their aesthetic appeal. These communities are old, wooden outposts, frequently of no more than a few smoking chimneys, that you could imagine returning to after bear-hunting or wrangling in the reindeer to a warm krumaka and some borsch and that Russian leg-kicking dance where you look like you are in a chair, but aren’t.  These communities are so incredibly charming and heart warming –like wooden gingerbread houses decorated in Easter egg colors- that you can’t help but wonder why they weren’t banned and razed by the communists for being so darn joyful.  Their placement is seemingly random, but are invariably nestled in vast poplar forests, and, after about 5,000 km from Moscow, a periodic mountain valley.  It seems only thanks to their remoteness, inhospitable weather, and names like (no joke) Wyarspasopreobrazhenskoyg that these places haven’t become tourist destinations for Europeans seeking a bygone simplicity, as common in many rural towns in France. In my travels I’ve come to expect traditional parts of life before the age of modernity and globalization to be just that:  a thing of the past.  Yet, quicker than one can draw their camera, I saw twice a family traveling through the endless Siberian woods in a horse drawn sleigh.  I had completely expected people to travel by snowmobiles and SUVs but seeing this was a refreshing reminder that the world isn’t all, yet, the same place with just different weather.  Just like seeing the spear-wielding, loin-clothed masked hunters from the broken down semi in Mozambique, these anachronisms refreshingly remind you that the world may not be as small as you reckon.  In one story that I think is incredible is that a few years ago a Siberian tiger –of which there are about 400 wild ones remaining in the world—held up the train as it decided the railway bed was as good as anyplace else in the 400 sq km these elusive beasts roam to travel about. As, you can see life on board despite the partying Scandinavians was ammmmmazing, and perhaps one of my best moves onboard was to work to synch my body clock with the local time which put me on the opposite sleeping schedule than the rest of my car.  To do this I stayed up for forty-some hours to synch back up, and this was perfect as I got to see the Siberian sunrise, our first passage through a mountain valley** and… Let me explain… I have always been a person fascinated by superlatives, and Siberia is just that: overwhelmingly extreme in every which way.  Massive:  Russia is the largest country on earth, twice the size of the United States.  Cold: Siberia is the coldest inhabited placed in the world.  …And consequently, Extreme: An unavoidable thought on board the Trans Siberian Railroad is wondering just how different life here would be than compared to …well, anywhere else in the world.  And, most superlatively of all…the AMAZING Lake Baikal.

Lake Baikal: Cooler than 'Ice Cold'

It is 5371 feet deep, 400 miles long and up to 40 miles wide, and estimated to contain to contain 20% of the fresh water in the world (enough for all the world’s need for 40 years).  And, oh yeah, it is the world’s oldest, deepest and, hot-damn, the largest freshwater lake in the world.  That’s a freakin’ Triple Crown:  largest, deepest, and oldest.  As far as facts go, that is like Michael Jordan and Gandhi being the same person, which is pretty freaking awesome.  And, invariably, seeing the lake as well in the early dawn is just that.  Awesome.   From the elevation of the restaurant car the incredible expanse of nothing you can see is beyond compare, even to my beloved Lake Superior.  For the few hours we traveled aside Baikal in the early dawn, and the even fewer moments when ABBA wasn’t playing, even the howling vacuous noise of ‘cold’ could be heard through the restaurant car windows.  There is just that much nothing.  And while I am already a fan of the elevated views the humble bluffs beside the lake afford, I am also appreciative that we take this route now than the olden winter method the Trans Siberian used for crossing the lake, which was freezing railway ties into the lake and laying tracks across this ice.  This worked, most of the time.

My VERY warm compartment in the middle of the night.

And to answer the most important question, yes, the Trans Siberian Railroad is warm.  Very warm.  Each car has a coal stove that the cabin attendant keeps constantly stoked.

I'm going to lie to you and say this was my cabin. That's me on the left with my Mongolian wife and child on the upper-bunk in 1st class.

Some attendants –especially at the wee hours of the night—get lazy, and to reduce the frequency at which they need to get out of bed to feed the fire they opt to instead build the fire up to the point where shirt and shorts would be just fine to wear, if you didn’t have to run between the unheated sections between the cars to get anywhere.  So, yes, it is very cozy.   Luxury has always been associated with the Trans Siberian Railroad, and partially this is unavoidable as anyplace besides being outside in Siberia in winter is downright luxurious by comparison.  Interestingly, history and some respectable bald-face lying has certainly helped propagate this legend.  At the 1900 World Expo Russia exhibited the Trans Siberian Railroad carriages “just like” those on the Trans Siberian Railroad.  These trains included smoking rooms, an amazing only four cabins per car (my 4 person cabin were 8 to a car) each with a bathroom with its own marble tub designed not to spill, a gymnasium on the train, a hair dressing salon, and a restaurant whose adjoining kitchen car equipped with world-class French chefs and tanks with live fish to assure only the best in world class cuisine.

hallway. Nice.

Basically, almost all of this was bull, and only existed in the fake train cars on display in Paris, but the reputation has never gone away and historically the train hasn’t ever been just a regular ol’ train either.  Even now, the first class cabins are pretty swank.  In addition to lacking the very few but very loud party pingles (party animals in Swedish, I am told), first class is only a few Russians, Chinese, Mongolians, and the Dutch couple in beautiful cherry wood 2 person cabins, about 35% larger than my four person cabin, and with a personal shower, table, chair.  Deluxe.

This wasn't me. I know how to spell Siburia. (photo of unheated portion of a car to exit the train)

There is also another marked difference between first class and second class:  bathing.  While first class cabins each have a personal shower, there are no showers in second class for this 6.5 day trip.  As you may imagine, these roasty-toasty cabins more or less mandate some action.  As odd as it is, I believe for the first time this year I have been at the vanguard of cleanliness in comparison to all those around me.

Interested in a second-class shower?

As few people know how or otherwise lack the motivation to do a bucket bath using a Hendrix College Frisbee and freezing cold ice water in the bathroom, which is about the same size as those on airplanes only unheated and everything is steel.  It is not pleasant, but it wakes you up rootin’tootin fast.   The train itself is an interesting Beast.  It is pretty much the same former Soviet trains as that from my Latvian train and my Russian train I took on my short, accidental visit to Belarus.  The only difference is that this particular train is owned and operated by the People’s Republic of China.  So, while everything is still made out of the same old laminated plywood in Second Class, the toilets a surprising cacophony of difficult to operate industrial steel piping, and each car with its own coal furnace for staving off the Siberian cold, other aesthetics are slightly different, sadly.  The Russian train was the best in that it was depressingly decorated with drab and worn soviet-era curtains and lace doilies.  The Trans Siberian Railroad is different in that I am guessing the curtains and doilies were replaced in the early 80’s. The result is instead of feeling like you are traveling in the egalitarian, mediocre blasé of Soviet interior decoration, you feel like about 25 years ago they bought surplus fabric from American Airlines and decorated a once old, classy train, but, like you can imagine, you pay to do this train to look at the windows and not the walls. I began trying to figure out how to say this on my very first entry long ago about life on board the cargo ship, but I think after this trip I can better talk about the appeal and relevancy of these types of unique overland trips to bicycles.  These massive over-land trips let you see the world around you, and to explore the surroundings with a level of intimacy that just can’t be afforded from 10,000 feet up in an airplane.  One of the great things about traveling by bike is that it is both quick and slow enough to allow you to get to where you need to go, but also to allow you to appreciate the land you are traveling through.  Upon reading up on the Trans Siberian railroad I came across stories from a man who in 1896 bicycled from London to Moscow, and then along the entire Trans Siberian railroad.  You can only imagine what that Herculean and assuredly often hellish trip rewarded him with in experience.  Our transportation technology has changed to make old luxury travel, like ocean voyages in luxury liners, trains like the Orient Express or the Trans Siberian Railroad no longer practical or  necessarily economical.  And while there is something to be said for expediency, economics, and technology, travel changes us. That is, at its core, the essence of the Watson Fellowship, after all.  Whereas if I had flown from Paris to Beijing I would have been there a little over a week earlier, I never would have had all the (mis)adventures along the way, get to see the exotic and edifying places I visited, or to witness startling and unforgettable scenery.   In each their own way, all of these things will assuredly subtly impact the way I understand humanity to be, and the way I understand our world of being. In this way, I think the bicycle is the greatest tool for learning in the world.  Not only is it used the world over in getting to school (and is often the only reason kids can go to school in much of Africa), the bicycle is a classroom unto itself.  There is a quote that I am sure I’ve dropped at least once in this blog, but it is my favorite, and bears repeating here.  St. Augustine said, “The world’s a book, and those who do not travel know but one page.” Yet, even as transformative as this 7,235 mile journey was, it still doesn’t compare to the learnin’ afforded by the bike.  The bike is intimately exposed.

This is to keep you entertained while I blather on trying to conceptually connect the experience to the value of travel.

There is no car-windows, no train-car walls, no bus windows to keep you from seeing, feeling, tasting and hearing all that is around you.  There are no car stereos to distract, no trains or buses that won’t stop for someone’s curiosity, and a speed slow enough that the brain can process what is transpiring around you, as you are the master o your fate and the captain of your soul.  You are a part of what is around you, and that degree of interaction results in an experience that teaches you more of where you are than I think even the most grammar-plagued travel blog ever could.  Yup.

The End.

*Ox tongue tastes disconcertingly like bologna, which makes you question the quality of the luncheon meat. **Siberia is essentially one massive plain and that is why it is so cold, since there is nothing, like mountains, to stop the arctic weather from sneaking on in.

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The Long and Whining Road: The Race from Paris to Catch The Trans Siberian Railroad

‘Travel happiness is that instant in time when everything you didn’t plan seems to fall together in a perfect moment: people, atmosphere, history and scenery … Because a stopover is usually a last-minute decision, something done on a whim, the odds are strong that it will end up being on of these unexpected traveler’s highs.”
–Daisann McLane, editor of National Geogrphic Traveler

Ready for Russia!

The following entry is about my 2,500 mile overland trip from Paris to Moscow, or, as Forrest Gump says, “It Happens.”

In discussing my upcoming travel plans for this Watson year, I’ve found the words “Trans Siberian Railroad” conjure romantic images of a bygone civility; a cross between Dr. Zhivazgo and the Polar Express.  Meanwhile, the word “Siberia” seems to only connote one word in our collective conscious:  misery.  From the gulags to endless cultural references of Siberia being a place where one is exiled for punishment, it doesn’t really make it a tourist destination.  On top of that, “winter in Siberia” is like taking the word “sucky” and making it into “super sucky”, which I think rather ineloquently captures part of the appeal of the Trans Siberian Railroad:  bygone luxury in the face of one of the harshest climates in the world, allowing one to experience this forbidding landscape, somehow, both intimately and comfortably.  Kind of like receiving a massage in a shark cage.

I think the other prong to the collective romanticization of the Trans Siberian Railroad is a nostalgia, rooted in both the history of the Trans Siberian Railroad, Russia, and the lost luxury of travel.*  Frankly, for me Russia has been a country I have always wanted to visit, at least since 1993 when I remember watching CNN with my uncle and misconstruing reports of billionaires buying everything in the freshly capitalist country.  While in reality this meant a group of about ten rich and well-placed men were buying up all the old Soviet factories, gas companies, and the like, I understood this to mean going to Russia NOW was the most probable way of me ever obtaining one of those antique brass diving suits, an attack helicopter, or a tank to drive to school in (and in that order of priority).  While, in all honesty, if I come across one of these things and the price is right I can’t be held liable for what I’ll do, the real reason I mention this is to show from a very early age visiting Russia has long been an aspiration of mine.  And, ironically, it almost remained an aspiration.

Me happy and excited on my train ride to Moscow.

I feel like a lot of clarification is needed or the subtext of what follows will just read “IDIOT” but I knew I couldn’t travel through Belarus without a travel visa, and in buying my train tickets from Paris to  Moscow I made sure to avoid going through the country.  None of the stops on the ticket readout mentioned any stops in Belarus, and I’ve come across in buying other international tickets messages stating the required paperwork you’d need to travel there.

...And then me realizing I am about to get kicked out at 3:00 am into the cold in the middle of nowhere, Belarus/Poland.

Anywhoo, while thinking I was doing everything right, at 3:00 am I was kicked off the train to Moscow in the first town in Belarus, and escorted by seven Belarusian police to the nearest snow bank where they kindly tossed me on to the next train bound to Warsaw, Poland.  Their advice was to travel to Belopodlaska, Poland for a visa, which if you haven’t heard of this town there is a reason:  it’s where nowhere is, and apparently also where I could get a Belarusian visa supposedly there in the morning after spending about seven hours in the freezing cold night.

And then me under detention in a Belarus Police Station.

What perhaps was one of my most crucial snap-judgment decisions this year I opted instead of getting off at Belopodlaska to travel all the way to Warsaw because I thought the Belarusian embassy would have been closed due to it being a Sunday despite what the Belarusian border guards believed to be true.  I found out latter I was 100% correct in thinking this.  If I had taken their advice I never ever would have made it in time to Moscow to board the once a week Trans Siberian Railroad, or in other words, I would have been SCREWED out of a long-held dream.  I am thankful for my unplanned trip into Belarus though, because in growing up watching the Olympics in the post-Soviet Union era, I never had the gratifying feeling of unapologetically cheering against an entire country –which frankly, having any rival makes sports way better—and now I can’t wait to cheer on an American as they avenge my ill treatment by putting Belarus in its place.

The romantic skyline of Warsaw: the New Jersey of Europe

Arriving in Warsaw everything continued to go the way it was going.  Warsaw is a miserable, cold, wet, decrepit city that does not make you wonder why most people here are angry, depressed, or drunk, but rather why are people choosing to live here? And it is not just my good luck in traveling that gave me these rose-tinted lenses.  Three other travelers (without being prompted) all independently commented to me how sad the city is.  So, consider this as being the setting for stressing out you are going to miss an amazing trip with only a grain of hope in getting to Moscow in time, not having slept more than 4 hours in over 2.5 days, and having a pear-shaped Warsaw train employee steal your passport and just repeat “Punishment.  Money.  Punishment.” Over and over again, until he had a $30 bribe.

In talking about my genealogy it is honestly easier to say what European countries my ancestors don’t represent. Before coming to Poland (the first time, before getting forced back by Belarus) I was eager to see where some of my distant kin hailed from, and yet I came to find it very ironic that just like my ancestors I was now too trying to escape Poland, only I to Moscow and with a year-old copy of NEWSWEEK for company.**

Eventually, I found I could take a bus for a day northwards from Warsaw through Lithuania to Riga, Latvia.  Lithuania and Latvia seemed remarkably more upbeat then Warsaw, which while it doesn’t take much, was like sun after a long, long, lonely winter.

My only additional comment on my trip through Lithuania and Latvia in transiting to Moscow is that in Riga, Latvia the train station is in a fairly modern mall, yet the only music playing inside was the Village People’s ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ alternating tracks with a musak song.  And it was a little bit frightening how in Riga I bought my Moscow-bound train ticket as fast as lightning.

Riga: The City of Hope

The 17-hour train ride from Riga to Moscow has only one notable story.  At the Russian border I was, perhaps understandably, nervous –particularly as they use a different alphabet and language—as that I had no way of knowing if I had accidently visited beautiful Belarus again only to kill all hopes of ever making it in time for the Trans Siberian Railroad.  Security breezed through the train –I was in Russia—and did not check a  single bag –no joke—in the whole car until mine.  Which, considering I was the only non-Russian / Latvian I think is a little suspect.  The border guards found such incriminating items in my bag after an extensive search as ibuprofen, over the country motion sickness pills, and anti diarrheals, all in their original packages.  There was only one person in the train car –a passenger—who spoke English, so with him acting as translator they ran through my med-kit barking in Russian “WHAT IS THIS?!  HOW DO YOU USE IT!?!”  It was already comical (except for the seriousness of the situation) at the point where I was explaining my speed stick deodorant was not drugs and I put it under my arms when an elderly Latvian on the bench underneath me began “answering” for me just how exactly I “use” these products.  So, the border guards would bark their question to me in Russian, and this man would answer back in Russian and everyone, including the guards would laugh hysterically.  I’ve come used to being linguistically in the dark and just going with it, but considering this pertained to me, Russian border security, and an absurd suspicion of me being a drug smuggler I thought it somewhat imperative to ask the translating passenger what the old man was “answering” on my behalf.  The translator hesitated and in an unmistakable gesture the Latvian gentleman underneath me clearly gestured “go ahead and tell the American, see if I care!” After a pause for careful wording, the passenger summarized “this man is telling the guards where he thinks you …put these products.”  Asscertaining what this meant, I quickly came to appreciate the rest of the grilling by the guards, who by now had now just devolved into being the straight men for this Latvian’s comedy routine.  “HOW DO YOU USE THIS TOOTHBRUSH!?!”  “THIS ALARM CLOCK!?!”  “THIS WATER BOTTLE!?!”  After each question, the man said the same phrase, and at this point the guards’ eyes were watering from laughing so hard!  After I cottoned on that this drug-accusation was more just a way to have fun and give the American a hard time than any real threat, I came to also having watery eyes as the man “answered” on my behalf as to exactly how I use my instant coffee.

Russian Border Security Quickly Coming to Assk Me A Lot of Questions.

Initially upon boarding the train with the assumptive Latvian I thought I would only have a little under two hours to find my way to the travel agent with my Trans Siberian Railroad tickets via a subway in a foreign language and to then get to the opposite side of Moscow via the same notoriously confusing Subway in time to catch my train.  Turns out my Latvian language skills aren’t what I inflated them into being, and I had misread my ticket.  Instead of this further rush of stress, it turned out I was rather happy to find out my error and realize  had 12 hours to explore a city I dearly wanted to visit (and perhaps find my brass diving suit).

Navigating the Moscow streets in 5-degree weather, where everything is written in a different alphabet, and almost no one speaks English is tough-muffins.  I say this because the next sentence may otherwise read ridiculously.  I got lost in the banking district of Moscow.  The irony didn’t escape me that I was in what was once the very heart of anti-capitalism and now, immediately upon arriving, I couldn’t find a single place to get warm, grab a cup, and get something to eat because every building I walked past was a bank.  Having not slept anything close to decently in over three days at this point, and carrying my entire livelihood on my back in this freezing weather wasn’t exactly what I wanted nor felt up to doing.  And my inability to speak or read Russian wasn’t helping me to find a greasy spoon dinner.  Instead of being able to ask or read the signs I operated by the outward appearances of buildings, which this tactic has worked well for me in other non-English speaking countries all throughout the world.  Instead, I found myself entering flower shops, DVD stores, and two lingerie stores until I finally found a place that sold ‘Just Add Water’ Borsch, in the banking district in Moscow.

The Moscow Subways: Perhaps the Most Beautiful Former Mass-Nuclear Bomb Shelter System in the World.

From there things continued to go great, and I was able to explore the city without any troubles, other than a bit of expected confusion in the beautiful Moscow Subways, which really reward being lost with a beautiful décor.  Upon exiting I stumbled across this massive clearly Soviet sky-scrapper, which was similar in architecture (and I am sure approximate date of construction) to the Empire State Building, only with a huge Soviet Star on top.  I assumed it was an old, important USSR building of some sort, and heck?  It would be cool to snoop around until I got kicked out, right!  Only within 50 yards can you tell this dominate Soviet symbol upon the old USSR’s capital’s skyline is now a very expensive Hilton Hotel.  In side I was told the building used to board party elites back in the day.  It struck me as very ironic that despite the radical transformation from communism to capitalism the building is continuing to serve the elites of Moscow.  It was also here I gladly accepted some of the complimentary appetizers (better than the ‘just add water’ borsch), and asked the concierge what the “must see’s” of Moscow were, in addition to Red Square.  Her advice was remarkably helpful.  “hmmmmm…I would recommend the outdoor gardens, but it is very cold and covered with much snow and everything is dead, so… hmm… not many tourists come to Moscow in the winter.”  Thanks.

I ended up being blown away in many dimensions –historically, architecturally, and scale, foremost- by everything around Red Square, and didn’t need to travel over to the snow-covered outdoor gardens as this was just so cool being here.  Red Square, the Kremlin, Lenin’s Tomb, and St. Basil’s Cathedral are all so iconic and historically important that it was like a Russian fantasy seeing them all so close together.  Humorously, the entire time I couldn’t get the Beatles’ Back in the USSR out of my head, and found myself absentmindedly humming this where just a little more than 20 years earlier on the same cobblestones enough nuclear missiles paraded by to blow up the world more than a few times over.  In more ways that one, I’m thankful things have transpired as so that I was able to travel here to visit Moscow.

And check it out!  This story has a happy ending!  In Moscow I finally had a good run in with security…

and I made it onto the Trans Siberian Railroad!

…and I’m dressed for success for my trip to China.

The End

Stereotypes:  In France it didn’t strike me as that they drink more wine than elsewhere.  Germany?  Other than what seems a higher appreciation for quality, the same, only concerning beer.  Russia and Vodka?  I was prepared to dismiss this as another simple narrative that is fun and simple to construe a population as drinking like little water, but I’d have to say this dismissal would be completely wrong.***  I took the following photo in a Russian grocery store where literally everything you see on the shelves is vodka.  From shoe level to above head height.  Both sides.  The truly shocking thing about this shocking photo is it only shows 2 / 3 of the vodka aisle.

Vodka.

You get odd looks upon taking people’s photos while buying Vodka so I only took this one, but I thought it would suffice to prove an American-like prohibition of alcohol in Russia would be an even more startling social revolution than anything Marx, Lenin, or Stalin could ever dream of.

*Honestly, few options now exist for travel that is luxurious, and rather we tend to now just view the destination as what must be reached as quickly as possible.  Interesting to think about why this has changed over time.

**This was the only English literature for sale in the dripping-wet, cold train station in Warsaw.

***Little Water is the Russian translation for Vodka.

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Ghana #2: It Happens Again And Again

Originally Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen was entitled Wings on Some Wheels, a metaphor for following a dream by traveling to hunt that elusive puppy, hope, down.  American culture is full of this notion of pursuing one’s dream through mobility.    From everything from the Muppet’s Movie to Easy Rider

, it seems the notion that who we are lays out on the road for us to discover, and our full potential lays ahead on this road of fate, and we only must pull out of here to win.  This relationship between hope and mobility has been on my mind a lot lately, as I have been working on behalf of the Village Bicycle Project studying how bicycles that were brought into a very small and very rural community in the Upper East region of Ghana about sixteen months ago have transformed people’s lives.

The ‘wings on some wheels’ stories I’ve been listening to (over 150 interviews) have taken me to the fun to say ‘Bolgatonga’ area of Upper East region of Ghana.  I’m in a village outside of Bolgatonga, and my research partner Samson (bald) and I travel each day about an hour Northwest to a village of Kandiga to study how the Village Bicycle Project’s efforts there to empower through bicycles is helping people’s dreams of prosperity be better fulfilled.  Wings on some wheels…

Needless to say , Ghana is a very different country from America.  Here in the evenings I’ve been recklessly tutoring high school algebra to some local kids, which has more or less brought me into the orbit of curiosity of a few more local kids and confirmed my belief that I should never teach high school algebra.  As a study break (which I think is also valuable as a lesson in social understanding) I show them a few pictures of America from my computer and beg for their questions.  Life here is so heads-to-tails different that when I explained the concept of a food vending machine it elicited a literal gasp of shock from the kids I was talking to.  That is how different of a world we are talking about.*

To get to Kandiga, the community I am doing my research in, Samson has arranged –or more like kinived—a way for us to have a brand-new motorcycle from a man who sells them under the condition that we keep the bubble-wrap on and don’t reconnect the wiring so the odometer works, so this way he can sell it as “new.”  That being said, I’ve mentally calculated that we’ve already put over 1,400 km on this “new” motorcycle, and we may have broken off one of the shocks and a pedal at one point, though good thing it came in the packaging that way.  What I like most about the motorcycle is that it talks.

Samson thinks the automated woman’s voice is speaking in French, but my guess is it is in Chinese.  Any which way, anytime we are idling she just keeps on repeating this jibber-jabber phrase that sounds exactly like she is saying ‘it happens again and again.’  At a stop-“suggestion” (no traffic laws are obeyed here) I’ll hear “it happens again and again” again and again, maybe twenty times.* It’s a weird phrase to hear again and again.  It reminds me of lyrics to a David Bowie song in that superficially it sounds like it makes sense, but in reality it’s just a mash-up that’s a semblance of logic.  Yet, in the past two weeks this generic philosophy has come to be a fitting narrative.  Fifty children surrounding you while you are doing something as fascinating as, say, drinking water?  It happens again and again. Eating fufu (blah and sauce) for six straight meals?  It happens again and again. Third day straight when no one showed up to be interviewed, and you sat all day in the hot sun?  It happens again and again. It happens again and again.  It hap…

The location of my research, Kandiga, is a world-apart from relatively bustling Bolgatonga, where I spend my evenings.  While Bolgatonga is much like Wa (where I was in the Upper West region), in that it is a medium sized, dusty ol’ town, packed with street vendors and motorcycles, Kandiga is anything but (excepting dusty).

Statistic: Zero. The number of times I laughed at Pee Cola. (Pee is a common last name in Ghana).

To get to Kandiga you ride down a rural road until you don’t think it can get anymore rural.  Then you turn off it onto an even smaller gravel road, and then again to –literally—a footpath that constitutes the only entrance into Kandiga.  The town itself is 1,600 people, which might strike you as a relatively big small village, but if you consider that it takes about 45 minutes to drive from one side to another, and the area it encompasses an area just a little smaller than Madison, Wisconsin, it strikes you as pretty freakin’ big.

A Cow Riding in a Taxi.

The funny thing about this picture is that when I saw a cow riding in the trunk of this taxi I wasn't surprised, but rather I thought, "wow, that's a lot like the donkey riding on the motorbike I saw two days ago." Africa does this to your sense of judgement.

 

As of late I have been shaking more hands than a politician up for re-election and throwing out more hand-waves than a beauty queen in a parade.  And that seems rather fitting, as those are more or less my two respective roles here in the Upper East region of Ghana:  to talk and better understand locals’ lives (with the hope of helping policy), and to be gawked at.

You know you are really rural in Africa when the people you are with do not follow soccer.  For most parts of Africa I have found talking about soccer –primarily the English Premier League—the best way to kill long stretches of otherwise silence, particularly in cabs.  Yet here in Kandiga a thousand and one barriers keep people here from following soccer, ranging from the lack of electricity, access to a TV, ability to afford one, ability to pay for cable, no extra money even for a bar to exist—so, really, it’s an ok factor to judge rural prosperity, all things considered, how overall soccer-crazy most of the continent appears to be.*

As for the latter, being gawked at, I am more or less pretty darn used to it.  At one day of conducting the interviews I counted all the people around me under the shade of the tree listening to my fascinating questions about selling millet.  All-told, there was 38 people listening in on this hot drama.  Apparently I am a good entertainment replacement for the soccer-deprived Kandiga-ites.  And in all honesty, I really understand where they are coming from too.  There has been a lot of sometimes frustrating moments where I am in a rural village by myself trying to do something just as simple as eat a doughnut by myself that  I bought from a street-side vendor, and the entire community will have literally stopped right where they were to watch me until I am on my way again.  I honestly don’t think there is a way to imagine what this feels like until you’ve experienced it.  While the unexpected spotlight isn’t desired at all, I’ve realized that I’ve come to Ghana for the same reason they’re gawking at me, which is the curiosity of how someone from another culture lives, so who am I to get frustrated?  And also, I imagine, I am pretty fascinating to watch eat a doughnut.  I’ve got some serious skill.

So, to reverse emphasis from me being gawked over and inspected, let me tell you what I’ve learned from the people I’ve been talking to and gawking at.  Or, more appropriately, let me tell you what they’ve said about how the bicycle’s helped them in their own words:

  • My son uses the bicycle because he uses it to farm and to go to market, Kandiga Market.  …at first [before owning the bicycle] I would carry the shay nuts on my head.  Now my shay nuts my son carries on my bicycle.  …Why do I not carry it on my bicycle?  Because my son can do it for me!  …At first I used to carry it, but I wasn’t able to buy plenty.  Now my son carries it on both the bicycle and on his head at the same time!  Strong man!  Sometimes we also use the bicycle to go to farm.  I did not learn how to ride, and now I am afraid to learn!  But that is not true [laughs], just my son uses it much always [so she does not learn].  The bicycle helps us now to get to farm fast, and help my son carry shay nuts for me, and it makes things easy for us.
  • We de decided to buy two bicycles at once in 2006 because of the pressure of the work. For example, in the rainy season you cannot go to both farm and school if you have to walk.  If the bicycle you do not have, you cannot do that, but with the bicycle you can go to farm early in the morning before school.  The family benefits because if you come back to school you can get water fast for the animals and do your homework too.  Before the bicycle things were more slowly.  If you go to school you go late.  You cannot fetch water for animals, go to farm, go to school, do many thing.  The bicycle has helped a lot!
  • I use [the bicycle] with my son.  I sell shay butter.  I also sell patasi, and the place I get them from is Bolga market, Navrungu market, Sirgu market, anyplace I hear they sell some at a good price for me I go and buy it.  I sell shay butter at Kandiga market.  I sell Patasi at  a funeral or anyplace there is a gathering.  There is a carrier I bought because I can use it to carry my things.  I now sell more patasi and shay butter because of my bicycle and carrier.  The way it helps me at first when I go I have to pay car, and now I spend money I was spending on auto to increase my business, so it has helped me and helped my business too.  I even bicycle all the way to Bolga Market, and Navrungu market too.   …Now I make more profit, especially because I do not take the car now.  With the profit I feeding my children everyday, and I give them money.  I also use it for school fees.  My husband pays the big children lunch money I pay the small ones lunch money.  All three of my children are at boarding school in Bolga [unprecedented in interviews, due to the cost of tuition].

And my favorite interview went like this:

Ben:  Who uses your bicycle?

Elderly, Smiling Woman:  My son uses it to screw!

Ben:  ….oh….umm…ugh….. tell me more about your son.

Elderly, smiling Woman.  He is fifteen years old.

Ben:  and ….ugh….how does he use the bicycle?

Elderly, smiling woman:  he uses it to screw with his brother!

Ben:  With his brother?

Elderly, Smiling Woman:  With his brother!

Ben:  …………….[really long pause]…and why does he do that?

Elderly, Smiling Woman:  Because he also works in construction.

Ben to Samson, the Translator:  Does ‘to screw’ in Ghanaian-English mean to do construction?

Samson:  Of course, Ben.

As you can infer from most of the interviews above, the bicycles are a tremendous help.  I’ve read that In Ghana 38% (by weight) of the commodities carried on 200 rural roads were by head loads.  That is an insane amount to carry on one’s head, and this can be done 5 times faster and carry 2.5 times more by bicycle.  For women who used the bicycles to go to market I found, without exception, their pay was anywhere from x2 to x6 what they were making before owning this bike.  For kids?  Before when farming duties necessitated their labor school just ain’t gonna happen, but now they can get up early, take care of the animals and the fields and still make it in time for school.  Really, just about everybody I met –and I did close to 200 indepth interviews- was able to clearly identify not only how the bicycle helped them personally, but has also benefited their entire family.  Needless to say, bicycles are life-changing here.  It is truly inspiring to see development work so well with such an empowering “by your own bootstraps” approach, and if it so moves yah’, I know and promise you a donation to the Village Bicycle Project of $30 (for one bike to one village family) goes a really far way.

Another thing I have really enjoyed from the interviews is asking Samson to translate the people’s names for me.  My favorites are the people with the following translated names:

  • Potholes
  • Onion
  • She Is Not A Human Being
  • Poorhouse
  • Room
  • The Place I put the Dustbin and Rubbish
  • The Best Has Passed (bitter first time parents?)
  • Fabrics
  • All Talk
  • I am Satisfied with The Guinea Fowl

Frankly, while some of these names are ridiculous from my perspective, I can think of some pretty good people who could benefit from these being their names; Particularly ‘All Talk’ for some politicians.  As Socrates said, every silver-lining has a touch of grey.  And while I’ve loved seeing how these bicycles have so radically transformed these people’s lives and let them pick themselves up with their own bootstraps, it also frustrates me in knowing that essentially not a single damn dime is being spent by any of the major international donors towards personal mobility development projects.

Another thing I have been enjoying of late are the Harmattans, which to me sounds like an expensive rug.  According to my geography dictionary** it’s a “heavily dust-laden and parching [wind] in the interior [of the Sahara, and] it helps to evaporate the high humidity of the Guinea Coast [where Ghana is located], and thus seems a relatively cool and healthy wind in that area, hence its local name there, the Doctor.”  Frankly, it feels good to not have an embarrassingly damp shirt before 9:00 am.  I’ve found the best way to deal with Dr. Harmatan is to enjoy one of the local watermelons that can be bought just about anywhere.  The choicest watermelons go for $1.38 USD, and if one were wiling to slum, a mediocre watermelon could be had for as little as .35 cents USD.  But I am a man of taste and uncompromising principal, so I stick with nuthin’ but the finest.  It marks a good way to end each night watching the shadows grow long on the Savannah from the porch of our house and seeing how much my seed-spitting skills can improve with each successive watermelon.

Lastly, I wanted to share this picture. It is of a butcher at his stall in Bolgatonga market on market day.  I wanted to take a close-up of the meat because it grossed me out how the bloody flesh was just hanging out in the open, free to all the flies in the world.  I asked the butcher if it was ok to take a picture because sometimes people here don’t like their picture being taken.  He began talking in rapid Fra-Fra and gesticulating like mad.  I figured he didn’t want it after so much talking, but when I went to leave he waved at me wildly with his knife and beckoned me back smiling.  As I prepared to take a picture he then closed his eyes –to show off his skills—and began slicing and slashing at the meat as fast as he could, scaring the crap out of me that this man was going to lose a hand because he wanted to show off.  I quickly took this picture as fast as I could to try to prevent an injury, and didn’t even get my close-up of the nasty meat.  Anywhoo, as this has turned out to be the most dangerous photo of my trip I thought it merited sharing.

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Life in Ghana: #1

Ghana’s pretty unique as far as African countries go. All in all, it is one of the most stable and up-n’-coming countries on the continent. Also, unlike other more prosperous countries in Africa tourism doesn’t represent much of a lick in the country’s economy. Perhaps because the slogan “’The Country Where You’re Sweat-Handkerchief Can Be Wrung Out By 9:00 AM!®’ lacks much appeal.

I’ve only been in the country a handful of days, and yet I feel expert enough to declare the following confidently: Ghana is HOT.

I’m currently living in Wa, which is a town in the dusty Northwest of the Country. Wa has much the feel of a cowboy town of ol’. The dusty roads, free-roaming goats, and the clear-fact that this town only seems to exist because there is nothing else constituting a town for hours upon hours in any direction. What brings me here, you may be wondering? In addition to being an aficionado of dusty, dirty places ideal for making my pants even dirtier, a greater calling has brought me to the exclamation-sounding Wa: The Village Bicycle Project.

In my studies in Africa this group has often been mentioned as a group that is, in essence, great at getting used bicycles to rural people who need it most. One macro-failing of a lot of NGOs is that it is easier to target projects closer to large cities where the infrastructure is more accessible, resulting in their being even more incentive for people to abandon rural village life for often worse conditions in rapidly over-crowding city-slums. The Village Bicycle Project (VBP) excels at getting bicycles shipped to Accra (the capital, on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea) to all parts of the country.

So, literally with a few hours of sleep after arriving in Wa, I found myself at 5:00 am hitting the rural, gravel roads (then trails) to reach the village of Dupari, to see my first instance of the VBP in action. The ride itself was an extraordinary experience. While every country I’ve been to in Africa has seemed a little different form the other, both in culture and in landscape, this was my first time in the Sahel (the ribbon of habitable land lacing around the Sahara). As the sun arose over the tall grasses crowding the margins of the road, and seeing women with metal basins on their head weighing about as much as a push-lawnmower, it was an incredible feeling of just goin’ out and seeing the world upon my own volition.

My destination was the town of Dupari, which a Peace Corp volunteer there named Jeff had filed out the paperwork to have the VBP to arrange to sell subsidized bicycles there, along with offering bicycle maintenance training. Villages here are sprawled out, and while the population for most is pretty small (Dupari is about 400 people), it takes up about the same amount of space as the parking lot for a major sports arena. I wasn’t sure where in the community I was supposed to go, until a friendly Dupari villager told me very excitedly “White man! You’re brother is over here! Come!” Honestly, I was very excited too, having not only reached Dupari but finding out I had a brother.

My brother turned out to be Jeff, a Peace Corp volunteer who has been in Dupari for over a year. Jeff, to say the least, is a great guy, and is not only a gift to the town of Dupari, but also to America for being such a dedicated ambassador. Unfortunately, with three months of intensive language training in Wali, courtesy of the Peace Corp, Jeff set the bar very high for me, and everyone naturally assumed I too would be fluent. That Jerk.

While in Dupari I had many great questions asked of me, but probably my favorite one was where a teenager asked me if I “ever get confused if I am Jeff or me.” Having not had such an existential crises yet, I told him honestly that no, not really, considering I’m a few inches taller, don’t have a long blonde ponytail, and don’t wear glasses.

My upcoming two months and a half with the VBP will see me traveling to many of such small towns similar to Dupari. A fact I am very excited about. While not traveling VBP volunteer Liz is allowing me to occupy a mattress in a spare room of hers in Wa. Life is simple, but in my book that is a good thing. We live out on the darkness on the edge of town, where stargazing would be ideal, if it weren’t for the constant lingering dust in the air. To compensate though, the moon does acquire a red-glow from the ochre-earth that gives the eerie feel that magic is afoot. Wa is the type of town where you can leave your bicycle unlocked anywhere and not have to worry about it being the plot of an Italian theft movie. In fact, upon leaving the post office I momentary flipped not being able to find my bike, until a passerby explained they moved my bike across the street into the shade so the seat wouldn’t be so hot from being in the sun. I only wish the locals would be so kind as to move me out of the heat as well.

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Typhoid? More like Ty-fun!

This was written in my final days of being sick with typhoid. All’s good in the hood now, and the bottom has ceased to fall out of my world. Nonetheless, I thought I’d take this opportunity to educate you on the hidden side of typhoid, and to make use of this entry that I typed up. Also, like the last two posts, there are no photos, but really for this post that is a-ok.

“It happens.” –Forrest Gump

Probably the best part of typhoid is that it allows you to settle back, and appreciate the small nuances of your surroundings. Being relatively fresh on the ground here in Ghana, with only a week of healthy traveling accomplished, it thus worked out perfectly that I had this opportunity to take a good, looooong appraisal of my little nook in Wa, Ghana.

Exploring a country with typhoid as your tour guide results in many trips to a certain room (of which, no more will be said other than TWENTYTWO IN ONE DAY), and suffice it to say this room is as far from being the kitchen as possible. While that and a few other less-than-stellar consequences occur from typhoid (such as extreme nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, telekinesis) you really have to look at it like the admissions fee for a grand adventure on a miniature scale.

My typhoid morning begins like this in my Wa Room (sounds like ‘War Room’ when said aloud): Kwa-May, the landlord slams open his door, which is located right next to my mesh-covered window. This is typically around 4:45 AM. I can typically lie to myself that I can continue to sleep well through his morning routine, in addition to the hubbub of the vagabond turkeys, chickens, guinea fowl, goat, and pig that roam through the hip-height grass around the small building we live in.

Already prayers from the neighboring mosque are loud and proud, though I now find it more of a lullaby than much of a call to prayer. Unlike the livestock in the nearby grass, Kwa-may doesn’t really come alive in his full volume manner until he has a pair of ears to target. The ears don’t even have to be listening, rather it is more like having a target –no matter how far distant—to aim to shoot at. And he doesn’t shoot quietly. With a voice to give a librarian a fit, he blows full force into his stories, and when the drama of the story necessitates, he will bang pots and pans, or slam my screen door open and shut to convey the dramatic reality of, for instance, the damn barber who charged too much that time a couple of years ago!

While before I was sick I was less than enthralled with these seemingly directionless, full-volume monologues every morning at 5:00 am, I now appreciate them greatly. Waking up and hearing a man’s history, technique and theory behind dog castration starts a morning like no cup of coffee can. Seriously. It get’s the brain going. Another favorite subject of his is THE DEVIL GOAT.

THE DEVIL GOAT, hated by Kwa-May, is named such because it has the audacity to nip at the tiny branches of the small tree in the front yard. One morning I awoke to find Kwa-May attacking the tree branches with a hammer in the effort to break off the branches THE DEVIL GOAT would otherwise nip at. While this kinda’ struck me as burning down the house so that mice wouldn’t get in, I must admit I don’t yet understand the full dynamic between he and the goat. Perhaps in the next few days of final recovery I will find out. Suffice it to say, he views it as a battle of good versus evil, and he knows The Devil has hooves, horns, and a tail.

The weather here is unbearably hot, and most of my time is spent in the Wa Room, laying on a mattress hearing prayers from the nearby mosque. Not knowing a lick of the language, I nonetheless and truly thankful for its soothing and continual presence. On one of the rare times I ventured for a sit out on the porch though I did get to see a feral cat take down a lizard in a high-speed chase comparable to the wolf chase scene in Planet Earth. Yet, as that is invariably sad to watch, I’ll lie and tell you it looked a lot like THE Great White shark scene in Planet Earth, which is the badest bit of nature ever caught on film. It looked exactly like that. Yet, sadly, such excitement only occurred once. As the morning progresses even Kwa-May leaves, leaving me with little entertainment, and under the questionably-capable protection of the two “guard dogs”: Scooby Doo and Body Guard.

Scooby Doo, is ironic in both his name and profession in that he is terrified of people, and runs away quiet as a mouse anytime anyone approaches. While these are not ideal qualities of a guard dog, he does seem incredibly well acclimated to the Ghanaian heat, to a degree that like leaves turning to the face the sun, his 23.5 hour naps each day find him oscillating continually in the shade. That is, unless a person approaches, at which point he silently bolts.

Body Guard, while supposedly once formidable in his day, is anything but. For the first week here I highly suspected he had died. I hadn’t seen him ONCE, and general consensus was “well, he is old….” Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on who you ask, Body Guard is alive, or at least alive-ish enough to drag his balding, scabby, flee-bitten skeleton body onto the porch to have surprised me one frightful night. His temperament is more social than Scooby’s, which isn’t saying much, but on the few instances I’ve seen him, every time he crosses in front of you on the porch you invariably tuck in your legs to not touch such a mangy, disgusting old dog. In this way though, I think Body Guard is continuing his prolific career in defending the house, and whereas his physical prowess is gone with his hair, I can only assume would-be robbers would likewise be just as put off by his appearance as any other disease-fearing human.

To go from one animal to another, children here are highly entertaining. From the earliest age they memorize this singsong nursery rhyme which, when shouted by the kids goes “NA-ZU-ZU! [white person] HOW! ARE! YOU! I. AM. GOOD!” Thaaaaaaaaaank you!” They have no clue what they are saying, other than a greeting to a white person, but every time anyone below the age of 8 sees me I get this rote-memorized song, with kids running and laughing in excitement, like they were playing I SPY and they had just found me, the desired object. In the right mood it is cute and endearing. Yet, hearing “Na-zu-zu! HOW! ARE! YOU!” shout-sang through a low window right near your ear in a pit toilette in the full throws of the joy of typhoid, suffice it to say it was best their English comprehension skills hadn’t yet progressed passed the Na-Zu-Zu song.

And while unexpected greetings in the bathroom were less than desired, Ghanaian hospitality I can truthfully say has been my saving grace here in Wa. Two Americans, Liz and Pete, have been kind enough to let me live with them, and upon my ill-fated typhoid voyage that began on Thanksgiving, have not only allowed me to roam and moan in one of their rooms, but have taken exceptional care of me. And this has come in extension with seemingly the rest of Ghana. Pete’s Ghanaian coworker Lukeman would take off work to drive me to the hospital, and when I told him I felt guilty because I felt like I was keeping him from something busy at work while we waited for more than two hours, with a level of such pure honesty it was beautiful he told me “This is more important.” As the days progressed eventually not only Lukeman would be stopping by my room to check on my health, but so too at one point would the rest of the office. I would be getting texts from Kwa-May’s brother asking about my health, while his sister (who works at the hospital) saw to expediting my wait for the needed drugs. By budging all of the people in the waiting line. I can only thank god I wasn’t more sick or I reckon all of North Western Ghana would have been at a standstill on account of its huge heart.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I have observed a DIRECT correlation between watching Back to The Future and the absence of extreme stomach pains and nausea. While this is potentially a profound medical breakthrough, sadly it was not conducted in a 100% thoroughly scientific clinical manner as there is an outside chance the five pounds of pills I was given an hour or two earlier could have had an unexpected affect on these same symptoms. I chalk it up to me giving a kajillawat of effort and cranking it up to 88, and to hell with what the lab coats think.

So, in conclusion, I want to make it clear that while I’m certainly not promoting typhoid, what I am saying is don’t knock it until you’ve tried it first. At which point, you can UNDENIABLY knock it, but also know that every new, unique experience influences future thoughts and actions, and while having typhoid wasn’t what I wanted the Doctors of Fate to have prescribed for me, it has also given me new insights, experiences, and certainly stories as a direct result. For instance, one thing I have certainly learned of is the power of Ghanaian hospitality, and hopefully the aggregate value of this unprecedented experience will amount to some spoonful of wisdom that will be of value later in life (or at least more than ‘don’t get Typhoid). And I guess, that is the whole concept of the Watson, in a nutshell, right? To put yourself into the path of events that will affect you, change you, and to respond to them to come away with a better understanding and to direct you towards new action. I can only hope the next said major event involves the Ghanaian national lottery. Then I can tell the kids how this Na-Zu-Zu really is.

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