River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze

Remember that retirement party back in June?  While I was there, I spent some time talking with a guy who had spent some time teaching English in China.  We discussed travel, career goals, volunteering, and seeking authentic experiences abroad.  He recommended that I read River Town, especially if I was thinking about TEFL in China.  There’s a very short list of people whose recommendations I take seriously, so I put this on the “if I get to it” list, and moved on.  Months later, I found a copy at my local library sale, paid the old lady 50-cents, and finally got around to it.

The first-person story chronicles the experiences of Peter Hessler, a Peace Corps Volunteer, as he teaches English Literature in China’s Sichuan province.  He discusses many politically difficult topics with the people, learns enough Mandarin and Sichuan-dialect to communicate, and runs in the pollution-thick air until a sinus infection bursts his eardrum.  He ends up in many awkward situations with the cultural differences, and lives much more completely than I ever have.

I realized that as a thinking person his advantage lay precisely in his lack of formal education.  Nobody told him what to think, and thus he was free to think clearly.

His remote site meant that the Peace Corps officials didn’t stop by too often, so Peter and his site-mates were left to navigate the political minefields without interference.  It was refreshing to hear that, even as a Peace Corps Volunteer, he was paid enough to live in Fuling.

That was one of the best aspects of life in the Peace Corps: my salary was so low that it was pointless to save money, but my Fuling routines were so simple and cheap that I didn’t have to worry about budgeting my expenses.  In a sense it was the richest I could ever be, because it was like toy money and I didn’t have to think about it at all.

I had thought about the Peace Corps before, a friend from high school volunteered in Peru, but I’d have to be much more qualified to get accepted.  I also don’t think TEFL is right for me, I’m no teacher.  That said, long term international volunteering is still my eventual goal.  I’d love to spend enough time abroad to learn the language, connect with the culture, grow and change.

There were good days and there were bad days.  To some degree this was what I liked most about Fuling: it was a human place, brightened by decency and scarred by flaws, and a town like that was always engaging.  For two years I had never been bored.

Bouldering Again

I’m back to climbing and my right ring finger is bleeding already.  I stopped bouldering at the end of 2013, $80/mo was entirely too much to spend on the membership and I had bills to pay.  After nine months of remembering dramatic dynos and embarrassing failures, I came to an important realization: I missed climbing.  My life was dreary and held no interest for me, let alone anyone else.  So I’d rather pay off my loans a month later than I’d hoped and make life worth living in the meantime.

So I re-joined EarthTreks last night.  I told the girl at the desk that I left because of the money and came back because I missed it.  She seemed to understand both reasons.

The gym was crowded and after an evening of falling onto the mats I sent two V3 problems and can feel the callouses forming already.  It will take some time to regain strength and get back to V4s and maybe V5s, but I’m excited about the road ahead.  It’s still expensive, but it’s quite nice to return to something I really enjoy.

Garbage Picking- Update

This thing is as done as it’s going to get.  I took the bike off the curb a few weeks ago and it looked like this:

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I then spent hours cleaning the frame, degreasing the drivetrain, removing unnecessary pieces, and re-wrapping the handlebars.  I had to chisel the ancient goo on the bars off with a screwdriver and may have used a hammer to bang some pieces back into place.  After all that, and $70 worth of tires, tubes, and pedal straps; it looked like this:

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As you can see, I followed the All Black Everything theory of design.  The 1983 Fuji looks much cleaner, is much cleaner, and everything more-or-less works.  If I wanted to throw more money at it, I would buy a better seat and fix/replace the rear derailleur since it’s bent out of alignment (not because of the hammer, that was the rear brake).

The frame is too small, the 27″ tires are difficult, and the bar-end shifters are ridiculous.  But as a $70 bike that works well enough, it’s great.

Detroit

I left the hotel, turned right on W Lafayette Boulevard, and followed my feet.  I wandered around Detroit alone, and learned a lot about the city.  The sleek new buildings and revitalized stalwarts turned into construction zones and eventually, emptiness.  With no planned route and no knowledge of the city, I got slightly lost.

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You know that feeling when you’re in a known dangerous place, and you end up meandering down a street?  And the burnt out buildings, the fragmented sidewalk, the fact there’s no cars around, broken glass underfoot, trash fluttering in the breeze, and a pervading sense of desolation convinces you that you shouldn’t be here?

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On my travels, I was asked for $5, $1, my credit card, and drugs.  An enterprising gentleman tried to sell me a gold necklace as I was crossing the street.  I saw some good graffiti but mostly bad graffiti.

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There are so many abandoned buildings, empty lots, and quiet streets.  It reminded me of a post-apocalyptic world, when nature starts to reclaim the forgotten cities.

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And I’d still like to live there someday.

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Garbage Picking

I rescued an old road bike from certain death.  It’s a 1983 Fuji S12-S LTD made of rust and grime.  I hope the diseased brake hoods aren’t contagious.

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It’s good to have a project again.  I plan to repair the existing 18 speed drivetrain and roll around on this vintage Japanese steel frame.  This is what it looked like 31 years ago.

Young, Wild & Free

I’m not young.

I have many grey hairs and my back hurts.

My knuckles have always looked wrinkled and my elbows click.

I’m not wild.

The drunkest I ever got was at a casual get together with some co-workers back in college.

I’ve never stayed up all night, been to a concert, or done any drugs.

I’m not free.

But there’s no shackle on my ring finger nor an intrusive space heater taking up half the mattress, so I’m freer than some.

I live behind bars individually labelled: Debt, Obligation, Weakness, Fear.

Eat Pray Love

Contains the best description of the life-changing effect good pizza can have:

So Sofie and I have come to Pizzeria da Michele, and these pies we have just ordered–one for each of us–are making us lose out minds.  I love my pizza so much, in fact, that I have come to believe in my delirium that my pizza might actually love me, in return.  I am having a relationship with this pizza, almost an affair.  Meanwhile, Sofie is practically in tears over hers, she’s having a metaphysical crisis about it, she’s begging me, “Why do they even bother trying to make pizza in Stockholm?  Why do we even bother eating food at all in Stockholm?”

The book is such a good example of throwing oneself into pleasure, devotion, and balance.

Now I’m on to “The Remains of the Day,” another book recommendation I’ve received.  I can’t believe there was a time in my life when I couldn’t find things to read.  Now the pile just gets bigger.