Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Somewhere outside of Brisbane, Australia

lies the expansive Browns Plains Plaza mall. And somewhere inside this cavern of noise and heavy people getting heavier sits a self-important licorice shop. Or so said the leather-faced woman stacking shelves in the supermarket. Judging from the state of what teeth she had left, I figured she’d been there before.

I’d never even met the guy for whom I was buying this particular brand of licorice; Graham had let us crash in his suburban Tokyo apartment earlier this year on our way back from Europe, and had invited us back for another one-night stay. In return, all he wanted was licorice. ‘Darrel Lea or Kookaburra,’ he’d requested. I’d gotten a few strange looks when I asked for the latter. Perhaps Graham had a sick sense of humor. Regardless, two flavors of Darrel Lea it would be.

I plowed through the throngs, a bag of groceries in each hand, winding my way through the apses and corridors of this temple of consumerism. A hundred stores packed in among the two (!) full-size supermarkets, a Target AND a K-Mart, and no sign of Darrel anywhere.

I stuffed my manly pride deep in my gut and asked the information woman.

‘Right next to the K-Mart.’

Of course it is.

Plastic bags 700 grams of licorice heavier now, I shouldered through the mobs in the food court and headed out into the warm evening, my laser sights set on the bus stop. True to form, I had no idea when the last bus back to my friend’s house was.

The timetable showed 6:10; apparently no one living in Heritage Park stays out too late. I asked a guy with grimy clothes what time it was. ‘Ten past,’ he said, odd irritation bleeding from his lips. I hadn’t seen the 543 anywhere; it was either running late or had left early – assuming this guy’s watch wasn’t broken.

I waited.

Several buses came leaning around the bend. None of them was the 543.

‘Do you have the time?’ I asked a nervous-looking woman. Before she could respond the kid next to her dug his cell phone out of his pocket. ‘6:15,’ he said. Relief and embarrassment on the woman’s face.

Waiting for a bus that wasn’t coming, I weighed my options. Take a taxi? Nah, too easy. Plus I didn’t have much money on me anyway. And Australia is oddly expensive. Call my friends and ask them to come get me? I’d feel like a ten-year-old who missed the school bus. The walk home, as best I could figure, would take an hour and a bit.

There was only one real option.

I adjusted the bags in my fingers and started running.

Five kilometers and twenty-five minutes later I was standing in my friend’s kitchen, smiling through the sweat covering my face. Gloria took the bags from my hands.

‘Why didn’t you call?’

I wiped my forehead with my shirt. ‘I didn’t have your number on me.’ A more intelligent excuse than the truth.

‘We’re in the phone book.’

She had me. There wasn’t much else to say.

‘Well, Gloria,’ I conceded. ‘Guys have this thing…’

She let out a humph. ‘Yeah, I know.’

That was the end of the conversation.

Frankly, I don’t know what ‘this thing’ is, or whether all guys have it.

I, for one, am afflicted.

Years ago, living in Longmont, Colorado, I would ride my clunky orange mountain bike to work at the Boulder Police Department at 6am – every morning, right through the winter, instead of driving my clunky but warm 4Runner. A couple years and a couple of jobs later I carried a half-keg of beer on my shoulders for the quarter-mile between the liquor store and my apartment; driving such a short distance was silly, my logic told me.

I would run to the supermarket every Sunday – then fight gravity all the way home under the weight of a week’s worth of food. I carried dressers and sofas and a console TV up the stairs into my second-floor apartment by myself; I couldn’t ask my neighbors for help because I didn’t speak Spanish, I reasoned with myself.

Transplanted to Japan, bitten by the fangs of the travel bug, my condition progressed.

I knew the hilltop hostel in Passau, Germany was full, but I had to push our loaded tandem up the half-kilometer-long hill anyway, just to ask and make sure. My wife walked along behind me, on the surface supportive and patient.

I won’t hesitate to bike across Cambodia, but I can’t be bothered with the time-consuming effort of searching for a guidebook with a reliable map. So what if a 100-mile ride turns into 130? Disassembling my bike and taking a tour bus over the mountains in Laos would have bordered on lunacy after hearing what an amazing ride it was. I’d deal with the rifle-toting anti-government rebels when I got to them.

That was hands down the greatest single day of riding in my life. And I only encountered one armed insurgent the entire way.

Last year my wife and I could have figured out the bus schedule in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, but instead we walked to the youth hostel – in the next town – my wife pushing our 11-month-old son in his stroller, me with a rucksack and a suitcase with three wobbly wheels, like the kind that make your shopping cart go haywire. (The fourth wheel was cracked and worn and wouldn’t turn at all.) We could have gotten around Morocco in air-conditioned comfort but we opted for the slightly slower, slightly more odorous local buses. Why travel all that way only to keep everything at arm’s length? We would have done the same in Peru even if we had a choice – which we didn’t.

In 2007 we could have taken a taxi from the airport into downtown HaNoi for ten bucks, but we went for the dusty, creaky 30-cent bus trip. Forget that my wife was four months pregnant. Just last week our friend in Taipei called us ‘resourceful’ for catching a bus from the airport to the subway, then walking to his place instead of having a taxi whisk us from the terminal directly to his door, avoiding the hassle and the rain. Neither of us saw anything extraordinary in it. We rather like it that way.

Even with those moments of ‘No I don’t know how the god damn ticket machines work! I’ve never frickin been here before!’

Whatever this ‘thing’ is, my wife seems to have it too. If she didn’t, we’d have a tough time traveling together. Fortunately my son is still too young to know any different. Or should I say better. At two years and two months he is a fully-seasoned traveler, having crawled and walked upon five different continents. One day, as he strikes out on his own, I’ll watch him go, hoping he too has this ‘thing.’

The worst (depending on your perspective) typhoon in years is passing right through Fukushima today. They’re predicting a foot of rain by the time all is said and done. And I have to go teach this evening, at a printer/copier manufacturing company eight miles or so from my home. We’re resuming class tonight after a month hiatus, with three new students joining the group.

My wife has a car. I don’t. Because I don’t want one. I always ride my bike, to work and the supermarket and the barber shop and everywhere else I need to go, no matter what the weather. And today, like on so many other days, I’ll be wrapping my books and extra clothes in plastic before sticking them in my knapsack and throwing myself and my bicycle out at the world.

I don’t know why I do it. I just have this thing…

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for popping over and checking out my blog and leaving me a message. Yes, I think you are the only guy....but that only makes it even cooler that you took the time to check it out!

    I am friends with Sharon. She posted your blog on her fb page and I'm so glad I checked it out. It is wonderful! It sounds like you have a wonderful family and life (I know you have a great sis!). Your son is going to grow up with the most amazing experiences be such a wonderful person for it!