A woman reading in her window above Marcos Highway in Marikina
A woman reading in her window above Marcos Highway in Marikina
One of my favorite things to do is to look through my old writing. I was indulging myself last night, and I found this blurb I wrote for a travel-themed TEDx I spoke at in Guangzhou last year. Ch-check it out:
1. When I say travel, what’s the very first scene pops up in your mind? What’s the story behind that?
I was living in Ahmedabad, India, and I just bought my first motorcycle. I had prepared for this moment meticulously: weeks and weeks of visiting motorcycle dealers and repair shops, testing shocks and pistons and getting crash bars welded to the bike. Oil changes, brake jobs, insurance, registration; I had a bike, it was legal (although I learned several months later and many thousands of miles away that it had been stolen from a man who borrowed money from a bank to buy the bike, it was completely unregistered and uninsured, and the engine was slowly and noisily disintegrating into an oily puddle of shredded aluminum.) Leather boots on my feet, visored helmet on my head, I was unstoppable. Ready for action, for adventure, for Life. I saw visions of open roads stretching to the horizon, the only thing between me and my destination the sound of the wind in my ears and the asphalt speeding by six inches beneath my feet.
There was one small problem, though–in my haste to buy a motorcycle, I’d forgotten that I didn’t know how to drive a bike. My last experience had ended poorly, fishtailing a rented bike into the thick red mud of a brazilian swamp with a nasty burn on my calf where the hot engine pressed against me. I’d happily stayed away from motorcycles after that. All of this came flooding back in a hefty dose of reality as I balanced the idling bike and contemplated the dusty chaos of Relief Road ahead of me. Giant brahma bulls crossed the road implacably, leaving a flood of rickshaws and trucks swerving to avoid the animals, streams of traffic flowed through each other without stopping in a sort of indian magic trick, and the sound of horns and chickens and diesel backfires provided a gut-twisting soundtrack to the whole movie. I took a last look at a row of sunflowers planted in the median, which I thought would make a pleasant last memory in the event that I died, and heart thumping in my chest, kicked the bike into gear.
People often describe having exhilarating dreams of flying, soaring over the ground and buoyed by endless power and freedom, spiraling away into an endless sky. It’s important to realize that in these dreams, the dreamer knows how to fly. I believe that a dream where I’m suddenly flying over a city, buoyed by endless power, but where I don’t know how to fly–this sounds like the most terrifying experience imaginable. I imagine myself peering down at the vertiginous scene below, terrified to move lest I send myself plummeting into a high-rise condo. Sweating, sphincter clenched, hands trembling, it would take all the strength I could muster just to find a cow pasture out of town and try for an inglorious landing in the mud and cow shit and hope not to break my neck.
This is roughly the feeling that pervades my body as I lurch and stall through traffic on my way across the Nehru Bridge back to my apartment. Thinking of a log flowing through a stream, I try to keep a slim profile in the endless amorphous traffic, presenting as small a target as possible to the lumbering trucks speeding past and praying to any god that would listen to let me survive this trip across town. I’m so tense in the saddle that my muscles are starting to shake under the strain. I can’t bear to open the throttle past an anemic whimper. I feel like I don’t understand, like I’m out of place, like I’m violating laws I don’t even know exist. Perverse visions flash through my mind where I drive the bike into a puddle of oil on the road, the rear wheel fishtailing and the bike slowly skidding sideways, moving in a non-euclidian arc while I fall away from the bike, both me and the bike tumbling and skidding along the oily road towards something hard and unsympathetic. I don’t feel any of the elation and adventure I’d imagined, just endless panic and a strong desire for this to end.
Foot hard on the brake, I made it across the bridge and I’m jostling through a tangle of vehicles waiting at the signal light at the intersection. Street vendors walk through the crowd, shouting and hawking their wares. Beggar children pull at my sleeves, hands outstretched. Rickshaw drivers laugh back at forth with each other, and the air is thick with dust and cloves and the smell of betel nuts. This scene is taking place at every intersection in Ahmedabad, a city of four million in Western India with a thick, sullen river snaking through its center. I breathe deeply and look around the intersection, trying to steady my nerves for when the light turns. Several cars away, there’s a Honda Hero, a small Indian city bike, with three Indian guys about my age crammed together on the back. They look over at the same time and our eyes meet. I can’t think of anything to say to them–I don’t speak Gujarati, I don’t know what we have in common. But in an instant, their faces light up in thousand-watt smiles, bathing me in warmth. It’s as if they’re saying, “Man, isn’t this fun? We’re just riding around our city, and you’re doing the same thing. Enjoy it! We sure will!”
It was as simple as that. In an instant, I saw it their way. The bikes, the streets, the city: it was just there, waiting, open. The danger, the panic was simply a matter of opinion, and in the light of their smiles, it all went flying away, like a splash falling back from the air. Without thinking, I was grinning back, beaming. The engine, the gearbox, exhaust, the madness of the streets, rickshaws and pedestrians, they were all tied together by countless threads, and in the space of a smile, I could see where they all went, how they all connected, and I saw the path connecting them. The light changed, my hands moved on the handlebars, and I took off flying down the road.
One fine afternoon, rock* and I were in the front room, dicking around online. The year was 2006, and it was approaching finals week and the accompanying holy water crusade against those bastards the next block over. In 2005, we’d launched a pretty good shmear campaign against PKT by printing out posters advertising the “grope the pope” and “condoms: use, reuse, recycle” parties that were to be held at PKT. We felt a strong desire to one-up our efforts from the last year, and the propaganda campaign was on our minds and lips while we searched google for silly pranks and german scheise-porn. As if by divine providence, an ad popped up in google’s sidebar that answered our prayers: “5,000 crickets for $50″
Sometimes God is staring you in the face, and you have to smile. I have no idea why anyone would sell thousands of crickets over the internet, why google was showing us an ad for feeder crickets, and what in our search for german shit-porn could possibly have given google the idea that we were in the market for crickets. Everything about the idea that I can type a credit card number into a website, and a few days later, thousands of insects will arrive at a destination of my choice–it doesn’t just seem strange. If someone described this possibility a few hundred years ago, nobody would have bothered to burn him as a heretic. Why waste the wood? They’d just mock him as a madman. There was no doubt about it–the world we were living in was just too weird. Rock* and I looked at the screen, looked at each other, and in an instant, our fates were sealed. This would be the best propaganda war EVER!
Three to five business days later, the brothers were inquiring about the tall, slightly wobbly tower of ten chirping boxes that were stacked up in the center room. It dimly registered on my mind that we had 5,000 crickets and no plan, but we soldiered on. The plan, we boldly claimed, was to mock those bastards, and damned if we’re not going to do it with crickets! So we looked around and found the name of a hapless PKT sophomore, and somehow found the name and address of his parents. Xerxes photoshopped up a shipping label from Amazon.com Gifts!, to make it look like this guy’s parents were sending him a care package for finals. I made some half-assed spring-loaded mechanism to fling the contents of a cardboard box out when it was opened. And Leslie had an outfit that looked a lot like a UPS deliverywoman. There–we had a plan.
But as the song goes, every rose has its thorn. Getting ten boxes full of five hundred rapidly moving insects into one delivery box is a daunting task. In our infinite wisdom, we didn’t make our delivery box ten times the size of one of the cricket boxes. It was maybe twice the size. Those crickets were going to be squished. It may be that only a tEp could conceive of a plan this stupid, but really, the way to know that this was a teply plan was just to wait for the inevitable backfire.
Rock* and I correctly identified the possibility that crickets would escape during the transfer from their boxy homes to the delivery box. “uh-oh,” we said, “this could be messy. Better do it outside.” Obstacle identified, corrective action suggested–tEps are tops! Sadly, tEps are also lazy. The nearest outdoor area was the roof.
And so one fine spring morning, rock* and I stood around on the roof, ripping open boxes of crickets with xacto blades and trying to herd the crickets into another, small box. Crickets behave something like an ideal gas that chirps. You have to do a great deal of work to compress them. Crickets will expand to fill the available volume. As it turns out, herding crickets is not easy, and we went through all 5,000 crickets to get maybe 500 crickets into the delivery box. The other 4,500? No problem. They’d just hop away. After all, we did this outside. We taped up our package, Leslie put on her UPS deliverywoman’s outfit, and we dropped it off, snickering, outside PKT. The plan was in motion.
The Hebrews have a saying: “Man plans, God laughs.” As it turns out, crickets, along with eited raisins, bouncers and brothers flying from a whumph! bag, are subject to the inexorable pull of gravity. This became apparent later that evening when the walls on the fourth and fifth floors began to chirp. The 4,444 escaped crickets from the roof had started to trickle downwards. God was chuckling.
You may recall that water war takes place in the week just before finals. This makes it an inopportune time to unleash a biblical plague onto your own home. But it rapidly became apparent that this was exactly what we’d done. Crickets were EVERYWHERE. The house sounded like a deafeningly loud summer field, around the clock. I remember going into one of the third floor bathrooms one morning to brush my teeth, and crickets were crawling up from the sink drain. Panicking, I turned on the tap, and crickets came out of the tap! Twelve hours after the cricket transfer, god wasn’t just laughing. He was on the floor, lHao, in danger of getting a hernia. Meanwhile, we were smashing crickets by the score and frantically trying to cram for finals. The house had the unpleasant odor of an entomological supply shop.
Twenty-four hours after the cricket release, our package was still outside of PKT. I was starting to feel the pangs of conscience. I’d opened pandora’s box, and it was full of loathsome, chirping bastards. And I’d only opened it up on the roof. Imagine what a spring-loaded pandora’s box would do in someone else’s home. Cricket warfare is truly no laughing matter.
I felt like it wasn’t too late, so I started spoofing fake MIT email addresses and sending notes to the PKT sophomore with pithy little anecdotes designed to clue him in on the severity of the situation. Here’s one I dug up, send from email@example.com:
I was walking down commonwealth avenue and saw an elderly man and woman talking to one another on the sidewalk. The man asked the woman, “Did you happen to receive any packages recently.”
“I’m not sure,” the woman replied.
“Well, if you do, I’d open them outside,” the man said
a concerned friend
For days, life at 253 descended further down the rungs of hell, but the package remained outside PKT. I sent a couple more emails to the sophomore, but it had rained a couple times, and it didn’t seem like anyone was going to take the sodden cardboard mess inside. I snuck up to it one night and held my ear up to the box, and there was only one feeble chirp coming from inside. Finally, I ran into some PKTs on the saferide.
“Hey,” I asked them, “I’m just curious. Why didn’t you take in that package outside your house?”
“You mean the chirping one?” they said
“um….maybe. was it chirping? I don’t know. I wouldn’t know. Anyway, why didn’t you take it in?”
“…because…it was chirping, dude”
After another week, the crickets had largely been eradicated from the walls of the haus, and you could only catch the faintest waftings of the unpleasant gryllids. Finals passed without incident, and we totally hosed down those clueless PKT bastards in a heroic battle (or not–I actually don’t remember a single thing about the actual water war). And so ends the saga of the crickets, the most perfect backfiring in the history of plans.
A lizarddick bastard stole my bike and I’m heartbroken. A wilted, broken wreck of a man stumbling through the Hong Kong streets. For a week, I walked the route I used to bike, unable to bring myself to take that loud subterranean cunt they call the subway. Laid out underneath us in the dark, she’s the gilded whore of the transportation world. Dark, sultry and ruthlessly efficient, she’ll get you where you want to go, but not how you wanted to get there. It’s transportation without affection, a business transaction, a rapid splash of come across the rails. There’s no love in my heart for the subway, and there never will be. I feel like a parasite whenever I’m inside her; she tolerates me grudgingly, whisking me to my stop and then snap* snap snapping the doors closed on my heels. Please stand back from the closing doors. What a fanged bitch. This rotten commercial pigswill is a moneygrubbing farce, a crude emotionless parody of transportation. Fuji was my equal, my traveling companion in a pedestrian world.
When I first met Fuji, took her home, we spent a week just riding through the streets, dodging sweaty diesel buses and screaming cantonese swears at taxis, spitting middle finger extended on windshields of mindless sedans, speeding down foreign roads through markets over mountains jungle, standing together on the deck of a ferry, my right pants leg rolled up and calf tattooed with a line of her teeth marks, smeared in thick black lipstick. Fuji’s presence opened my eyes and my heart to the city, turning every day into an exploration, every morning’s commute into a scream of joy.
She scared me sometimes. She was so light, so flexible, that together I felt we became something different, a supercreature, dark, aggressive and dangerously fast, weaving through cars in perfect sync. I’d look down in surprise as we sped unceasingly through intersections, matching trajectories with speeding cars and following an anointed arc over manholes and streetcar rails. And when that gorgeous Hong Kong rarity, an open, empty road, appeared before us, I’d stand on the pedals, sink down into her drops, and suddenly we’d be going at warp speed, sweat dripping from my arms to run down her frame, flipping past enraged shopkeepers, idling engines, thousands of wide-eyed pedestrians afraid to jaywalk; the only sign of our passing a blue and black blur and the sonic wave building in front of us, shattering car mirrors and killing small birds in our wake.
After our first weeks of our velocitous affair, I heard Fuji complain for the first time, a muted whimper escaping her front wheel bearings on the way up Shek O mountain. The squeak slipped through fingers clamped tight over her mouth, unbidden, it reached my ears, my feet catching dead in the pedals at the thought of causing her pain.
That was the first night she slept over. I carried her up eleven flights of stairs to the roof outside my apartment and spent hours moving up and down her frame with spanner, allen keys, spoke wrenches and what little knowledge I had of the inner workings of a bicycle, trusting her to show me what she needed.
That night I opened up every bearing surface on her, coating the delicate balls inside with thick axle grease. I tensioned cables, cranked down hard on her adjustable headset where it was creaking, and brought her rims into perfect true. I coated the chain and shift mechanisms until they glistened black and sultry with synthetic oil. After hours of labored focus in the muggy Mong Kok night, I stood. My face was drenched in sweat and rust, shirt stained, face smeared with old grease darkened with street grime. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and traced a streak of grease running along my jaw, then brought my fingers to my mouth. They tasted of road grit and cheap teflon. I fell asleep on an unmade bed in my greasy clothes, dreaming of double yellow lines.
In the morning, Fuji was still outside in the sunlight, lying on her back and steel spokes glistening in the breeze. I gave the cranks a couple hard turns and her rear wheel spun up like a centrifuge, perfectly silent, with unflinching momentum. I held my fingers a millimeter off the tires as they spun, and the air vibrated with potential. That morning, Fuji and I tore down Nathan road in perfect sync. Stripped down to my undershirt, I bobbed to the beat in my headphones, standing on the pedals and pushing down with my whole force on every stroke. In the downhill sprint from Jordan to Tsim Sha Tsui, I never touched the brakes, just poured on more deadly speed and watched the front tires of the taxis in front of me, thinking, “I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m Jimmy Dean. I’m Steve McQueen” as I tore through the ephemeral canyons between busses, ducking my head around their side mirrors on my way past.
I read somewhere about a bird in the Amazon that’s the fastest flyer in the world. They fly kamikaze missions in the rainforest at a hundred miles and hour, pulling high-G maneuvers around baobabs and lianas. Their population has been decimated by crashes, and they’ll likely vanish from the face of the earth in my lifetime. These birds are on to something, I thought, and flying full speed towards extinction, we broke through the final red light onto Salisbury, leaning into the steep fast turn and then pulling out of it to swerve across four lanes of traffic into the ferry terminal.
I remember the first time I saw her, in a tourist bike shop on Lantau. She was a floor model, occasionally taken for test rides, but underneath the dust of neglect, I could see the italic Fuji stamped white on her blue frame, her drop bars cushioned with spiraling black tape.
Like all first dates, it was horribly awkward, but from the moment my feet touched pedals I was enraptured, suspended weightless six inches off slicked asphalt and launched into a firework of joy. I was flooded with reckless emotion, sprinting with her down Mui Wo beach to test her mettle, to test my own, to see if I was flying with a great Truth or caught in the spokes of the bicycle advertising gnomes. Fuji proved her loyalty and put my fears to rest in one fell swoop. In a fast turn on our first ride, I leaned too hard and one of her long, graceful cranks caught the asphalt, sending me skittering down the concrete struggling to stay alive. I never questioned her again.
I tried to bargain her down in my broken Cantonese, but the store owner refused to budge at all. He just shrugged, knowing that another day, another week, a richer man would come along and take her unquestioningly. I reasoned, I argued, I threatened, but he was having none of it. Flushed and trying to save face, I stomped out of the store and onto the evening ferry home. I paced the deck uneasily, feeling wrecked and confused, and then moments before it left the dock, rushed off the boat and ran back into the bike store to tremblingly beg the owner’s forgiveness, pleading with him to let me pay full price for her. I felt like the worst jew in the world. I’d forsaken my religion and pride, and I climbed onto Fuji a broken man and tore off, racing my demons into the darkening mountains.
Now, courtesy of lizarddick, I walk the streets of Kowloon in a haze, watching the bikes chained to parking meters for signs of a quick paint job camouflaging her telltale look. I carry lockpicks with me everywhere and spend hours each night practicing, until I know I can break any bike lock I see, if I can only find Fuji locked up on a corner. I read the brands off the locks I pass and think of the picks, techniques, and the time it takes me to break my practice locks: Vise, rake pick, open in fifteen seconds. Tri-Zero, single pick, twenty seconds. Blue coil locks, single pick, but barely touch the tension wrench, minute and a half. I distractedly open padlocked water meters and storage sheds, but Fuji is nowhere to be found. As i walk through the weeks, my fists clench and my mind vulcanizes, rehearsing the fight I’ll have when I see the fuckwit riding her. Every muscle in my body is straining towards the release of a surprise tackle, Fuji skittering down the asphalt, me straddling a stranger in a busy road, knuckles bleeding and screaming in earnest, violent cantonese, “she’s my beautiful bike, she’s my beautiful bike!”
But I never found her. It’s been three weeks now, and I understand that she’s not coming back. But my heart still lights up when I see a flash of blue tubing in the street, the peculiar matte glint of steel rims. You might laugh at this, might call it foolish or obsessive or perverted. But for three months, Fuji and I were partners in our quest for freedom in a foreign and unfriendly world. They call it riding a bike. Fuck it, I call it love.
Every now and then, you run into a tool that’s been so streamlined that there’s no room for slop or frills: it does whatever it’s supposed to do, it does it simply, and it does it right. Shovels are like this. Old drill presses are like this. Bridgeport mills are like this. And a $2 hotwire foam cutter I bought in Hong Kong is like this.
What I love about this tool is the minimalism. For the uninitiated, a hotwire cutter runs electrical current through a thin piece of wire, heating it up so that it can melt through plastic foams (like styrofoam or polyurethane insulation foams). A good foamcutter can cut through foam like a knife through butter, giving you a lot of power to quickly sculpt shapes in a cheap, lightweight material. Designers use this all the time to mock up new ideas that they can pick up, hold in their hands, and generally get a feel for a new project they’re working on.
I found this cutter at a corner store in Hong Kong, and I was attracted by its extreme simplicity. There are no moving parts–it’s just molded plastic with a couple metal inserts, but it’s surprisingly sturdy. The cutting wire itself is crimped music wire, and it’s something I can easily replace myself with cheap materials, if it ever breaks. The whole thing is powered by two D-cell batteries.
There are no moving parts–not even a switch or button. It’s extremely simple, I can see what everything does at a glance, and it just works. My kind of tool.