An American Abroad

Audio Interview With Yours Truly

Odyssey Master and fellow travel blogger Jay of Jay’s Odyssey conducted an audio interview me earlier this week about my travels and tribulations. It was a fun — even outrageous — conversation. We covered the pitfalls of eating spicy food in Bangladesh and then using a urinal, as well as the perils of being interrogated by the Tunisian police on suspicion of fornication. You can listen to it here.

Jay is a serious bicyclist who is about nine days away from embarking on an epic trip through Mexico and points south in just nine days. It’s a trip that’s been delayed twice, most recently because his bicycle was stolen. Now that he has wheels again, I look forward to following him on his journey. He’ll be Tweeting about his travels @jays_odyssey.

Using Divvy Bikes to See Chicago

One of the cool things about Chicago is its network of 476 24/7 bicycle rental stations spread out across the city. Divvy Bikes are purpose-built, durable, three-speed machines. No one is going to confuse them with speedy road bikes, but they are serviceable and well-maintained.

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Their special bike racks feature a small solar panel tower, a credit card reader, and a small touch screen to set up your bicycle rental.

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I used Divvy Bikes to ride from Hyde Park along a zig-zaggy route north to the Adler Planetarium, a distance of about eight miles. I wasn’t in a particular hurry and hopped off the bike from time to time to admire the lakefront view and take photos.

While it was great to have a bicycle to tool around on in Chicago, Divvy’s fee structure makes their bikes a less than optimal choice for someone like me who wants to take his time to see the city from a bicycle seat. The headline rental price is just $7 a day for unlimited use, but there is a BIG catch. You have to check your bike into a Divvy station every 30 minutes. You can check it in and take it right out again (though this is something of a hassle), but if you ride for longer than 30 minutes without returning it to a station, 1) you get charged additional fees of at least $3, and 2) you have your 24 hour usage rights cancelled, which means you have to pony up another $7. For a traveler like me without a set route, it was annoying to check a bike out, meander for 15 minutes, and then spend the next 15 minutes frantically trying to reach another Divvy station so as to avoid extra charges. For commuters with regular routes, this wouldn’t be a big factor, but for me it was. I felt rushed and anxious.

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All this being said, Divvy Bikes can be a good way for a traveler to get around Chicago, but only if you plan your route carefully before setting out and stay cognizant of the time elapsed between stations. For people with a daily commute, though, Divvy Bikes are a very viable alternative to public transit and private vehicles.

Chicago Housesit

I took the Megabus from Toledo to Chicago last week to begin a housesitting gig in Hyde Park. The double-decker bus was only about 10% full and was quiet, clean, and on time. However, the seat arrangement provided excruciatingly little legroom for my 6’3″ frame, and the WiFi was slow and heavily censored.

The house I’m taking care of here was built in the 1880s and features high ceilings, bay windows, an elegant L-shaped staircase, a cozy gas fireplace (with oak mantle and beveled mirror) and an honest-to-god front porch swing.

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The place comes with four cats, whose personalities range from ebulliently friendly to pathologically shy.

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The neighborhood, Hyde Park, is a wonderfully civilized place of tree-lined streets and older houses.

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It’s home to the University of Chicago and President Obama. It has a record store and a head shop, conveniently located next door to each other.

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Across the street is a barber shop, where you can get some Buddy Guy to go with your high-and-tight.

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Down the street is an African American bookstore still selling Malcolm X literature.

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Bicycles for rent stand out in public racks. With the swipe of a credit or debit card, one can unlock one of these machines, go for a ride, and return than at any one of scores of locations around the city.

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There are handsomely-executed murals on the walls of the viaducts where trains to and from downtown Chicago pass overhead.

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The neighborhood feels wonderfully time warped, like a portal to 1979. There is even a nightly repertory film series at U. Chicago just four blocks away.

In nearly every place I have traveled, there comes a moment when I look around and ask myself, Could I live happily here? The answer for the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago is an unambiguous yes. I will be here for at least two housesitting stints this spring. I may not want to leave.

Xishuangbanna Redux–Part II

After morning toast and a couple cups of coffee Wednesday morning at the Mei Mei Cafe, I rented a bicycle and crossed the Mekong River heading east. My route took me through parts of Jinghong that have been developed as tourist destinations. There were rows of handsome shops and restaurants fronted by elephant statues/streetlights/flowerpots. At the end of the street was a large Buddhist temple.
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New apartments are being built as vacation homes for wealthier Chinese people. And though I don’t usually post examples of Chinglish, the signs for this development had a certain crackpot poetry that was just too good to pass up.
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It didn’t take too long, though, before I left the rich resort atmosphere behind and was in the midst of some of the most severe poverty I’ve seen in China.
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Down one of those streets, though, was an amazing sight.

There were two kids, about eight years old.

Lying on a piece of cardboard.

Under a parked truck.

Doing their homework.

On a school holiday.

I had to admire their dedication and resourcefulness. It was doubtless cooler under the truck than it was in the nearby shacks. I recall that at that age, there was a sweetly neurasthenic quality to lying down in a confined space. And if I ever hear American students complaining that they couldn’t do their homework because they had no place to study, I’m going to think of those kids.

I didn’t get as deep into the countryside as I’d hoped; I wilted a little in the tropical heat. I headed back toward Jinghong, stopping along the banks of the Mekong to see motorcycles being washed and elaborate riverboats pulled up at a dock.
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I arrived back at my hotel soaked with sweat, but definitely happy.
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After a nap, I was picked up again by Rachel and her husband, who took me out to dinner with her high school English teacher, his wife, and a former schoolmate of hers who is now a cardiologist. Once again, the food was delicious (a beef stock hotpot, broiled potatoes with hot spices, and chive soup) and the company was warm and welcoming.
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Just when I thought the evening was over, we decided to head back to the Mei Mei Cafe for tiramisu and ice cream. Rachel’s extended family showed up and a good time was had by all. However, I’ve probably gained five pounds in two days from the constant eating.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part I.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part III.

Read Xishuangbana Redux–Part IV.

The Mikey Bike, Phase 2

With the help of the good people at Yuxi Bike, The Mikey Bike has some new farkles.
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Note the new pedals, bottle cage, tires, toptube pack, headlight and tail light. Less visible is a new rear axle. This bike has a heavy steel frame. It’ll never be a road racer or touring bike, but it’s a good city bike now, which is what I wanted. A new more doodads will complete the project. The weather has been rain, rain and rain here, but as soon as things clear up, I’m going riding.

Yuxi City Limits

I wish the weather had been better, but a promise is a promise, even to oneself. I was out the door at 9:15 this morning and headed north for the Yuxi city limits on the Mikey Bike. Yuxi is not a big city, so after only about twenty minutes of riding I was out in the near-countryside.
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I was still very much in sight of the city, but the immediate scenery was quite different.
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I passed by various kinds of housing, ranging from older brick row houses to more recent construction that had an almost suburban feel.
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There was even a new upscale development, complete with garages. There were hundreds of units here, and from the look of things only a dozen or so were occupied.
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As I continued on, the pavement turned to red clay and rocks and the scenery turned to abandoned industrial plants and derelict housing. I spent a lot of time poking around the ruins.
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There were some operational sand and gravel plants, but they were also old and pretty beat.
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I caught one of the workers doing bong hits on the job.
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People around there were curious but friendly. Two times when people saw me dismount the bike, they came over and asked me if I needed help. I wanted to go on, but I was worried about the Mikey Bike’s tires. They are old and almost bald and I feared getting a flat on the increasingly rough gravel road. Things got pretty muddy and slippery, too.
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I decided, reluctantly, not go on. I didn’t get nearly as far as I’d hoped. I made it to this point, turned around, and headed home.

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Later today, I am heading back to Yuxi Bike to get some new and more robust tires. There will be other journeys.

The Mikey Bike, Phase 1

I stripped off the old, mangled, rusty handlebars and replaced them with a new set. Since the old brakes were barely functional, I also replaced the brake levers, cables and pads with new Shimano components. Some nice handgrips completed the work.
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I did the headset work myself, but the brake work was done by Sunny at Yuxi Bike–and his wife, Janice, sold me the parts. They do great work and speak English, so I will definitely be going back soon. Hoping to take a ride out past the Yuxi city limits on Monday.

The Mikey Bike

Thanks to the generosity of my soon-to-be ex-colleague Mikey, I now have a free pair of beater wheels.

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I rode home from work today–a lot faster than walking. The bike just fit into the elevator with me and now it’s parked in my living room. As you can probably tell from this photo, it needs a few things: a new headset and brakes, primarily. I should be able to score the parts I need from Taobao, a Chinese online retail platform similar to eBay. Once it’s in slightly better shape, I hope to use the Mikey Bike to explore some of the more far-flung regions of Yuxi and the surrounding area. In the meantime, it will be a great way to commute.

The unwritten rules of the road are different here than in the States. Another colleague described Yuxi traffic as slow-motion chaos. It is indeed slow; I have yet to see a driver speeding. The concept of right-of-way is not at all what I am used to. Drivers think nothing of pulling out in front of other vehicles–and the drivers of those other vehicles calmly accept it. Situations that would cause severe road rage in the mildest-tempered person in the US don’t seem to cause even the slightest frustration here. Thus while riding home, I was far more worried about running into someone who might pull into the lane ahead of me than I was about being hit by a car from behind or when making a turn. And though no bicyclist wants to get into any kind of accident with a car, the slow speed of traffic here reduces the chances that such a collision would be catastrophic.

Stay tuned for Mikey Bike restoration reports.