Thursday, May 2, 2013

A factual essay: America, I know because my step-cousin's friend went there

A few days from now, my girlfriend and I will climb aboard some painfully lengthy flights, and ideally end up in the African country of Zambia.
Over the past few weeks though, Nora and I have been plagued by encounters with people of the unfortunate misconception that Africa is a tremendously deadly place. They eagerly inform us that we will most certainly be killed immediately, repeatedly and with great brutality by every single thing we see or touch. I tell them that I have been there before, but that doesn’t slow them down. I tell them that I lived there for twenty years, emphasis on the word lived, and still they go on. So I decided to write an essay, about America.
America is a tremendously deadly and dangerous place. It is absolutely teeming with some of the most harmful and terrifying creatures on the planet. If you survive those, earthquakes, tornadoes and other freak weather events sit around literally every corner, waiting for their chance to rip your body to shreds.
Snow, for instance, is a ridiculous and unfriendly white substance that falls menacingly from the sky like the pieces of a shattered summer’s day. In the words of my step cousin’s friend, “When I arrived in Colorado this January, it covered the earth and trees in a thin blanket, making for a scene that was as cold in heart as it was in temperature. I thought to myself, ‘How on earth does anything live here?’ Now it’s May and the snow covers the ground in a thick blanket, and I can’t help but wonder, ‘How on earth does anything live here?’”
Direct contact with snow will result in immediate frostbite and hypothermia, and is a common cause of death in America. My step cousin’s friend told me this himself. He’s a reliable source.
From Texas to Minnesota, California to DC, Prairie Dogs are everywhere. Don’t be fooled by their innocent demeanor, they’ve evolved that way to draw you in. Once you’re within reach they can deploy their lethal claws of death, up to half an inch in length, and teeth capable of cutting through leather. That’s not what kills you though – every one of them carries the Bubonic Plague. In 2012, hospitals around America were literally inundated with a case of the plague.
Then there are the Bears. These are not the cute, cuddly little toys that you fill your children’s bedrooms with, these are something completely different. Adult male Grizzly Bears can weigh up to 750 pounds, much of which is muscle. That muscle powers razor-edged claws and teeth, which when combined with their aggression, make it clear they’ve evolved for the sole purpose of killing humans. Since 2010, American hospitals have fought to deal with a staggering eight cases of people being attacked by bears. I could go on. Rattle snakes, alligators, mountain lions, raccoons, chicken McNuggets. Even the trees there are deadly - my cousin’s friend met a guy once who knew a guy whose mother’s uncle’s landlord was crushed by a falling pine.
And then there’s the food; don’t eat anything. I read once on Facebook that a company called McDonalds puts chemicals in their burgers, making them addictive. One bite and you’re doomed, the cravings will hit and before you know it, you can’t fly home because you don’t fit in the airplane seats any more. Best take a pack of sandwiches, the food in America is just not safe. Nor is the water. Apparently much of it has to go through special treatment plants before its drinkable. Who knows what they’re doing to it there. Best take your own water.

Like I said, this is a factual essay, and my step-cousin's friend is a really reliable source. So be ware.
May the fourth be with you.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kayak 'Save the world' plan, and tips on people chewing gum

I want to start this post with a bit of a serious message. It's about an extremely crucial issue, that threatens to negatively impact all of our lives. A curse to anyone blessed with the gift of hearing. It is the practice of producing the most unbearable sound in the entire world - open mouthed gum chewing. Last year I very nearly failed my final calculus exam, and I blame that entirely on the girl who sat behind me, obnoxiously broadcasting her mouth's activities at a decibel level beyond anything socially justifiable. I know this is more than just a peeve of mine, I've seen the chill running down other people's spines when somebody walks into a room, munching loudly on the most pointless food item ever to be invented by man.

I've decided that the only way to stop this inferior behaviour is by using negative reinforcement on those who practice it. Here's what I propose. Next time you hear the unbearable squelching noise, locate the offender and punch them right in the mouth. Society may struggle to understand this behaviour at first, but once they catch on to the reason for all of these spontaneous punchings, open mouthed gum chewing will immediately go out of fashion, and man kind will once again live free.

That said, I'm now going to talk about boats.

In last week's post, prior to my twenty first birthday, I mentioned that I thought it would be a good idea to kayak the Zambezi river, from source to sea. Having now turned twenty one, and gained all of the wisdom and experience that comes with suddenly being so much older, I have decided that this was a preposterously stupid idea. So I've set a rough date - May 2014 will be go time.

My research has also gone further. I've stepped out of the realms of google, and actually spoken to some real human beings. I managed to track down a guy who's done the trip before, and he was happy to lend me some of his experience. He says that aside from the odd close call with crocodiles and hippos, the trip was great, and is well worth doing. A wonderful reassurance.

I plan on extracting all possible information from him, on issues like immigration - where the river crosses borders -, support logistics, and most important of all - things that I may not have thought of yet. I also have to urgently get onto one of the most crucial components of such a major kayak expedition - actually knowing how to kayak. My whole life's kayaking experience adds up to precisely three minutes spent wobbling around a flat bit of water between two rapids, before I fell out and decided to climb back on the real boat.

I also decided that if I'm going to do such a big trip, I may as well make it useful to the world. See, the Zambezi is a little bit sick right now. Reason being, some very good intentioned aid organisations kindly donated mosquito nets to villagers all over Zambia. These nets were coated in a pesticide, so that any mosquitos that landed on them would be killed. Naturally though, it didn't take long and these nets were in the rivers, catching fish and leaking their chemicals into the water. Those chemicals aren't such a problem to humans and larger wildlife, but they threw bacterial populations out of balance, so now the water's full of E-coli and Salmonella.

The idea is that I'll find some very clever artsy people, and commission them to design me some picture cards that can be understood by people of all cultures and languages. These cards will demonstrate to the locals that, even though the nets are great for fishing, they are causing all sorts of problems for the river, and could eventually lead to endemic illness, unnecessary deaths, and malnutrition because all the fish died.

Fortunately, almost all of sub-Saharan Africa is split up into chiefdoms, and those are split into smaller areas that are controlled by 'headmen'. These authorities are taken extremely seriously in the villages, and if we can track down the headmen or chiefs and get the message across to them, the 'peasants' will obey. I'll then use any media coverage that the trip gets to teach people about the unintended negative effects that aid can have, to try and stop things like this from happening in the future.

So that's it for now.
'Til next time,

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Twenty one, alcohol and a monumental kayak trip

I'm about to turn twenty one. Some weird social milestone, after which I'll be legally permitted to purchase alcohol in the United States of America. I'm reminded of this several times a day, and am now extremely, monumentally not excited about it. I'm sorry, but as far as exciting milestones go, I just can't see this as one of them. All I had to do to achieve this was go 2.1 decades without being killed in any way. And to be honest, that hasn't really been all that difficult. Here are some exciting milestones: becoming a national champion at something, having a child, buying a house, being a successful businessperson, winning an Oscar, publishing a book. They're difficult to achieve. Maybe not having a child, it seems that the challenge in that is having one when you actually wanted one. The others require you to dream though, to be wildly optimistic and tell people what you want to achieve, then keep your nonchalant face on while they ridicule your concept of reality.

Here's a concept of reality worth ridiculing. It's built around contentment in trading the thrill of your childhood dreams for the excitement involved in trying to perform mundane tasks while under the influence of ethanol. It's the concept of dissolving your need for achievement in a fermented drink. I'm used to people expressing their disappointment when I say I don't want to get 'wasted' with them. I find it to be a remarkably boring and artificial activity. I'd rather spend the evening writing, and contemplating my latest dreams.

I guess I do a lot of dreaming. I hate to call it that though, I prefer the word 'scheming'. Planning. Researching. That makes it plausible, makes it real. I mean, I once dreamed that I could be a professional mountain biker. Done. During the past few months I've researched the plausibility of kayaking from the source to the mouth of the Zambezi river, getting a job as a writer, and hitch hiking around the WORLD. I got a job writing for an adventure magazine. So, done. Now I want to know who'd be willing to sponsor a kayak trip down a river that has one heck of a resume. I just like doing things that make people rapidly inhale their coffee, so my ego can grow exponentially for every second they spend choking, before they ask, "You did what?" No. I truly believe the world is a playground, and we all get a limited playtime. I feel it would be a huge waste for the bell to ring before I've explored all of the jungle gyms, and done all of the terrifying jumps and swings that everyone else is too scared to attempt.

So I've started poking around in the world of potential sponsors, for someone who will fund my kayak trip. I've done some initial research on the costs, risks and logistics, and the more I learn the more I realise just how plausible it is. Not just plausible; doable. Realistic. And provided that I can make it to 2.2 decades old; happening. Now I've got the jitters. I'm nervous, because I've raised the stakes in my mind, and not stepping up means failure. Failure sucks. So on tuesday I'll be twenty one, and I've done a lot for a twenty one year old, but I haven't done anything HUGE. Check back in with me next week for an update on my plan to have done something HUGE by the time I'm twenty two.

So that's it for now.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Bikes, Jeeps and the trouble with 'green'

Earlier today, while standing on the side of a huge mountain with my friend Charley, I had a profound realisation about the city of Boulder. It came to me while we watched a succession of overwhelmingly cheerful rednecks attempt to propel their Jeeps up an impossibly steep, rocky outcrop. All of them were grinning from ear to ear, taking photos and telling Charley and I how incredible it was that we'd managed to get all the way up here on bicycles. And here they were, a bunch of Boulderites, churning up the earth, releasing copious quantities of CO2 in to the air, and just generally having a wonderful time in the sunshine. Happy as Larry.

I mentioned in a post last year that the city of Boulder only likes green things. As it turns out, that was a lie. What the city of Boulder actually likes is telling other people to do green things. Nobody actually likes being green, because that means selling your beloved 4x4 for an underpowered battery car that isn't very good at anything, swapping your lightbulbs for low energy ones that put epileptics on edge and make everyone look like they don't have enough blood in their face, and then buying your clothes for ten times the price you'd normally pay, because they were hand sewn by Nepalese monks from the fibers of organically grown, gluten free, calorie free, fair trade non-GMO recycled hippie plants. And worst of all, it means that every time you eat something that came in a wrapper, you have to spend ten minutes studying charts and lists to figure out which bin to throw your wrapper in. Then suffer an inevitable pang of guilt because you probably got it wrong, and now your Snicker bar's wrapper is going to get stuck in the recycling machine and cause a disproportionately hideous catastrophe. It probably won't, but one can never be sure.

Everyone here seems to love telling other people to do green things though. I feel like it's some sort of ego boost for those who have nothing else to talk about. I've watched people walk into my house's kitchen and gawk in horror at the idea that we only have one bin (or "trash can"). Yes, the cans, boxes and banana peels will all go into the same hole, where the organic compounds will decompose, and the plastic will live on until long after we've all been killed by the chlorine in the water. If we recycled, the cans would go into a monstrous factory with countless tall and smoky chimneys, where enough energy to power sixty five trillion normal lightbulbs will be used to melt it down and turn it into, what do you know, another can.

If they wanted us to be green, why didn't they just sell us the drink in a bottle that we could wash, take back to the shop and re-fill? I think it's because that's an old idea. It's something that Coca-Cola was doing fifty years ago, and milkmen were doing fifty years before that. Back then it wasn't called recycling, and it didn't have the saintly word 'green' attached to it, you just did it, because otherwise you couldn't have Coke or milk. But now it's fashionable, and if you do it you get to tell everybody all about how it all works and how you've personally saved the Polar Bear.

The only people who can save dear Polar Bear are the four Jews who run the world; the boards of companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi Co., and of course the IMF, because they control everyone's money. But if they stepped in we'd all HAVE to sell our 4x4s, and we don't really want that. If we did, Al Gore would have won an election. So get over it, Boulder, when the four Jews decide that we've made too many CO2s we can live in a world of enviro-communism. Until then, open the trails and let us have fun.

The bikes glinting in the sun as we sat down to watch the crazy Jeep people go by. Photo credit: Charley Liu

That's it for now.

Friday, February 8, 2013

On free bikes and the trouble with aid

The other day I had an idea.

Scattered around my university are thousands and thousands of quite cheap commuter bicycles. Most of these were bought by starry eyed parents, so that their little darling could ride blissfully along winding paths to and from school every day. And for one or two weeks, that's exactly what happened. Then little darling discovered the free bus system, and the shiny precious steed was locked to a bike rack and never used again.

Seeing all of these bikes just sitting there, unloved and unwanted, I decided that they'd be appreciated much more in Zambia. There, villagers could load each of them up with half a ton of charcoal and make them a part of the transportation system that is so effectively turning lush Africa into a desert. Or, ideally, they could use them to get to the market and back, riding blissfully along winding paths through the bush. For one or two weeks, that is, until the brake cables become snares, wheels become children's toys, and chains become a part of somebody's exotic jewellery collection.

Anyway, I got in touch with the university's parking and transportation people, who said they'd be more than happy to donate some bikes. Then I came up with a plan. Auction the bikes off and give the money to World Bicycle Relief, who will then donate some bikes to my family's mountain bike race in Zambia, so that we can donate them to some villagers. Then I did some realistic thinking.

Since about 2009, aid has been a hot topic amongst the world's few honest economists. Not because it's such a wonderful thing, but because it isn't. One such economist, Dambisa Moyo, has a great (peer reviewed) book called Dead Aid, explaining how aid frees third world governments from reliance on their own economies for funding. This means that they don't actually have to make their country function in order to get paid, so they spend their time embezzling aid money instead.

That is a slightly larger scale issue than my little bicycle project, but it revolves around the same concept. In the first edition of the race that my family organises, we donated a couple of bikes that made some villagers very happy. Then we came back a year later and they were all very unhappy, because they'd broken their bikes. So we helped them to get spare parts, did our race and off we went. Except that we'd left behind the same toxin that ravishes most of Africa. Expectation. They won't fix their bikes, because they think that if they wait, we'll do it for free. And so it plays out. What aid brings to these countries isn't opportunity, it's expectation.

So that's where it stands right now. I got all excited about an idea, as a result some very nice people want to donate a bunch of bicycles to me, and I have no idea what I'm supposed to do with them. I think the most morally correct next step would be to give the money to an animal shelter. Dogs never get expectant.

Any suggestions?
That's it for now.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Epiphanies, gun control and screaming children

The other day I had an epiphany. I'm not sure how or when it came to me, but at some point I realised that writing a blog about my life as a professional mountain biker became extremely difficult the day I stopped actually being a professional mountain biker. I also realised my last post was so long ago that my former avid readers had given up asking when I'd write again. As it happens, that's what pushed me over the edge, and so here we have something profound. It is a post that has almost absolutely nothing to do with bikes. I think. I'm not actually sure because I haven't written it yet. But I think I'm going to make it about guns.

Several days ago I mentioned to an anonymous female that mass shootings seemed to be on the rise as a fashionable form of mass murder, publicity stunt and suicide. To which she responded with the blurted words, "Of course, that's because the government's trying to take everyone's guns away!"

I didn't really know what to say to that, so I just stared blankly at her, then quickly changed the subject. Once the initial shock had passed though, I realised something. That is, if you are of the opinion that it's okay to kill a dozen odd innocent people because the government wants to take away your machine gun, you should probably tell your nurse, so she can increase the dosage of those pills she gives you. Then have her lock you safely away in a heavily guarded basement. Perhaps on an island, far, far away from anywhere that you might come into contact with, say, other human beings.

On another island, a very big one called Australia, there was a similar issue in 1996, when a man called Martin Bryant went on the rampage and killed 35 people. It took the Australian government all of two weeks to impose strict gun controls and a compulsory buy back of all automatic and semi-automatic weapons. The upshot of this was that the number of annual gun related murders dropped from 1000 to just 40. Adjusted for population, that would have the same figure in the USA drop from 15000 to 600.

When Martin Bryant went on trial, he was found to be mentally ill. As are many gun murderers. This becomes a little bit worrying when paired with the following statistic; according to the [American] National Institute of Mental Health, 26% of people will suffer from at least one diagnosable mental disorder in their lifetime. Add to this that there are about 300 million guns circulating in the USA. Then the national rifles association and the 11% of Americans who very outspokenly oppose any form of gun control, even background checks before purchase, are perfectly happy with the idea that one quarter of the country's population will, at some point in their life, be mentally ill and able to purchase a semi-automatic weapon without any form of inquiry into their mental health. Presumably this is the same 11% that thinks Arnold Schwarzenegger's films were documentaries.

In my opinion, the problem has very little to do with politics or freedom, and has everything to do with a society that enjoys the idea of a good gunfight. You see this when conversation about armed robbery comes up. In Zambia or South Africa, you tend to get advice along the lines of "don't be seen, don't be heard, don't be shot." However the same conversation in America tends to bring about vivid imaginary narratives of superhuman feats, expert shooting and a happy ending in which all of the robbers get shot or go to jail. A narrative made popular by two related concepts: hollywood and the playstation. Though these things are equally easy to access in both countries, they are held central to American culture.

So when you step back, forget about all the amendment nonsense and look at what's actually going on, what you see is the government trying desperately to take the screwdriver away from the angry screaming child before that screwdriver ends up in somebody's leg. I think the US government's biggest mistake has been trying to rationalise with that child instead of doing what John Howard did in 1996, and whacking the screwdriver right out of the kid's hand.

That's my take on it for now,

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On racing bikes, Boulder and learning stuff

From the day I realized that my body needed a break from training and racing, it was about twelve months until I felt okay riding my bike again. That may seem an excessively long break, and maybe it was. But that’s how long it took for me to figure out exactly what the act of riding a bicycle means to me, and how it fits into my life. In figuring that out, I reminded myself why I wanted to be a professional bike racer in the first place. Because I want to live in a world in which every act, every conversation and every thought is in some way devoted to the pursuit of the adventure that comes with riding and racing a bike. And winning. I mean winning is everything, obviously.

So here I am. In January I jumped into a plane, sat there for twenty mind numbing hours, jumped out, jumped into another one and emerged at the University of Colorado, where I became a student. The University of Colorado is in a small city called Boulder, which isn’t actually on the planet earth. It occupies its own little area in the time space continuum where it floats, blissfully unaware that the stories in the newspaper are non-fiction. Though it is accessible by car, but then you have to get out of your car because Boulder doesn’t like cars. Cars aren’t green, and Boulder only likes green things. Which is why it’s the fourth most bicycle friendly city in the world. According to Wikipedia.

Having started training again, I decided it would be cool to do things properly this time around, so I got myself a coach called Carson, a nutritionist called Katherine and a physiotherapist called Anne. And then I did some collegiate mountain bike racing, which is like normal mountain bike racing except that it has a rule saying you can’t drink alcohol after your race. As a result of this there is a lot of alcohol consumed after races. When not consuming alcohol though, collegiate racing involves squeezing about thirty people and their bikes into various rented vehicles then driving for five or ten hours to an inconspicuous little mountain town, where you race against university students from all over the place. The rented vehicle of choice typically being the 'rape van’; a type of transit van that is popular amongst murderers, rapists and bank robbers. My university’s biggest rival at these races is a school called Fort Lewis College, also known as Fort Leisure for the rigorous academic programs that it doesn’t have.

I got a couple of second places in this series, won one race and then came fourth at the collegiate national championships to end my season. I deemed that a successful campaign, given that it was just me peeking my nose back into the world of racing. I’m now on the hunt for a couple of sponsors to make my life easier next year, when I’ll race the proXCT series, which is America’s top national cross country series.

I’m also spending a lot of time in the gym right now, which I’ve never really done before. Carson has me lifting weights a lot so that I have some muscles on my skeleton when I start training on the bike again. It turns out that gyms, at least university gyms, aren’t actually full of serious athletes and coaches like I’d always thought. For lack of a better explanation I’ll use my own facebook status from the other day; a gym is actually "a place where frat boys go to look in the mirrors while making "I'm a big boy" faces and building huge biceps, which are necessary for the huge fights they get in.... on their playstations.” If you don’t come from America, that statement in itself probably explains what frat boys are too. 

So that's me, for now. 
More to come soon.