Friday, October 18, 2013

The Dumbest Thing I Have Ever Done

Any seasoned traveler knows that traveling abroad is serious business, especially when you're traveling solo as I often do.  For example, you lose your passport in Hungary, at best you're looking at a major hassle, at worst you end up living under a train station on the outskirts of Budapest. Break your leg in India and at best you can expect a painful and very long trip home, at worst you end up with a botched amputation and a nasty case of gangrene.

Then there's that show Locked Up Abroad  which depicts every traveler's worst nightmare: being locked up abroad. Though the people profiled on that show generally suffer from either poor judgment or outright stupidity (here's a hint: don't want to be get caned up in Pakistan? Probably not a good idea to be an opium mule), there is always a risk of being innocently caught in the middle of an unfortunate situation.

As a result, the typical business traveler generally puts up their guard when traveling aboard. There are of course simple steps one can take: putting your wallet in your front pocket, always carrying cash, knowing how to avoid the common scams, and not eating the street food no matter how good it smells.
(Pav Bhaji vendor, Juhu Beach, Mumbai. For the foreign traveler you're looking at dysentary in a to-go box.)

But if you've ever been to Japan you know that its a pretty damn safe place. Leave your iPad wrapped in 10,000¥ notes on a park bench in the morning and there is a pretty good chance that it will still be there in the evening. That is, if somebody doesn't chase you down and try to return it to you. Japan is impossibly clean and orderly almost to a fault. Taxi drivers wear white gloves not to protect themselves from steering wheel cooties but vice-versa. And I know of no other country in which jaywalking is considered taboo, even by teenagers.

So when I am traveling in Japan I tends to let one's guard down a little more than I would in other countries. What is the worst that could happen? You start drinking Suntory whiskey in some smoke-filled divey Harajuku karaoke bar signing Barbara Streisand medleys with a bunch of Japanese salary men and wake up somewhere in the bowels of Ginza Station face down in a pile of soba noodles wearing a Sailor Moon costume. Not that I have any firsthand experience with this. Anyway, the point is that Japan feels really safe because it generally is very safe. 

When I was in Japan last year, I stayed for a night at a chic golf resort/hotel on a cliff overlooking the ocean. My room had a beautiful balcony with a sweeping panoramic view of the countryside below.  It was spring and the sliding glass door to the balcony was cracked open to invite the cool ocean breeze.

As I'm sitting in the room, still feeling a little green after the death defying demonstration gymkhana-style bus drifting I had just experienced on the way in, this giant flying thing comes in through the sliding glass door and begins beating its massive heft against the glass trying in vain to escape. The bug is the most magnificent insect I've ever seen alive--it looks basically like a fly but is about the size of a hummingbird. Now, I've always been interested in insects. As a kid I spent most of my waking moments crawling around our yard looking for bugs. I left no stone unturned in my search for crawling things (I mean this quite literally--I knew that lifting the flagstone pavers in the back yard nearly always betrayed the hiding location of a millipede or centipede). So at at that moment the only thought in my head is "you must capture this amazing bug before he flies away".

I do a quick mental survey of the bug catching tools at my disposal and immediately run towards the bathroom for the ubiquitous little hotel room highball glass (you know the one covered with the paper cap). Instinctively, I also grab the paper comment card sitting next to the glasses.  I run back over to the sliding glass door and in one deft swoop I pin the flying bug to the window under the highball glass, just as I had done with grasshoppers hundreds of times as a kid.  Then I slide the piece of card-stock between the highball glass and window and proceed to carefully move the entire unit safely to the coffee table.

And it is at this point that I realize the insect is very much not a fly. It is, in fact, a goddamn wasp.  Except it is no ordinary wasp.  It is a wasp that is like 2.5 goddamn inches long and who is very clearly no longer having a good time.It is pissed! The thing is biting and stinging and scratching at the table and glass and practically moving the highball glass around the table. It's that exact moment that I realize I have done something terribly dumb.   And, it is at this very moment that I hear a knock on my door from my Japanese business associates who have arrived to escort me to a very fancy dinner.

I tried to appease it with a cash offering.  No dice.

At dinner the kimono-clad servers bring course after course of beautiful food but all I can think of is that there is a gigantic bee in my hotel room waiting to inflict bodily harm upon my return. At some point during the 19 course dinner, I excuse myself to go to the "otearai" and sneak off to the lobby of the hotel which is the only place where WiFi is available (*Sidenote Dear Japan: What the fuck is up with not having WiFi in hotel rooms? You pretty much invented the electron.  Get your shit together.  Yours truly, Eric) and quickly conduct the following google search: "Japan giant wasp".  Here are the top search results I see:

1) "The 5 Most Horrifying Bugs in the World"
2) "Hornets From Hell"
3) "Meet The Real Killer Bee"...

 Dear God, what have I done? I have, in a cup, back in my hotel room, a Giant Sparrow Hornet, the most deadly animal in all of Japan.

The more I read about these guys the more frightened I become. They are nicknamed "Yak Killer" because yes, their sting can take down a Yak.  In Japan they are responsible for some 40 deaths per year. Not only is their sting excruciatingly painful, they can sting repeatedly injecting a flesh melting venom with each sting. They have incredibly strong mandibles for tearing chunks from your flesh.  They fly much faster than you can run.  Best of all?  When they are distressed they can emit a powerful pheromone alerting others from the colony to come to their assistance. Pheromones!  The damn thing is up there signaling the entire fleet!  WTF am I going to do now?

I can't let the thing go or he's likely to kill me and I can't just leave him in the jar because he's likely to kill some unsuspecting housekeeper in the morning. Also, I certainly can't call the front desk and have them take care of my problem because that would be too logical. I've gotten myself into this mess, and it's up to me to figure out a way out. 

As I continue to read more about this terrifying animal I discover, like any super-villain, the Giant Sparrow Hornet has one mortal weakness: They cannot survive temperatures higher that 115 Fahrenheit. Honey bees, a favorite food of the Giant Sparrow Hornet, have discovered this weakness too and when their nest is attacked by one of these big bastards, the honey bees rub their tiny abdomens against the intruding leviathan to kill him with friction (honey bees can withstand temperatures up to 122 Fahrenheit).  Immediately, the answers dawns on me. What is the one thing virtually every hotel room on the planet has?


After the 42nd and final dinner course is served I excuse myself from post dinner Suntory Time and race up to the hotel room and cautiously peek inside. No swarm of angry hornets, just my angry friend under the cup. I dash into the bathroom and grab the hair dryer off the wall and quickly go to work heating the glass hornet enclosure. Within minutes, my Yak killer buddy is twitching a little and shortly thereafter it's starting to curl up and writhe around. I spend another ten minutes or so really cooking the thing. I leave the wasp under the cup until morning just to make sure it's not just playing dead then toss if off the balcony into the forest below. I love it when a plan comes together. 

Note: Since I wrote this last year The Oatmeal (one of the most entertaining blogs on the interwebs) also featured Japanese Giant hornets as part of a segment on Long Distance Running.  Read it, it's really an amazing piece. The hornets show up in Part 5, BTW.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Happy Suffering To You This ‘Cross season.

And we’re back.
I know I’ve kept my fan waiting for too long but now that cyclocross season is ALMOST HERE. I figure it’s time to restoke this campfire. 
Suffering vs. Talent
When I was in middle school was on the school cross country team.  Actually, I suppose I should clarify that statement a little bit.  The thing about middle school cross country is that only the top 5 guys for your team count towards scoring.  Therefore, if you aren’t one of the 5 fastest guys on your team in the race, all you are really doing is going for a jog. Except instead of just being able to go for a jog from home in your comfortable clothes, you have to take a bus from your own school an hour away to an entirely different school to go for a jog wearing ill-fitting school-issue polyester short shorts and a matching singlet that is three sizes too big, both of which were made during the Carter Administration and have not been not washed since. Then after you are done going for a jog you have to take the bus back to school (for the purposes of “team unity” we are told) and have your parents pick you up from said school even though your parents are right there and could easily take you directly back home in their own comfortable car and might even stop at Burgerville for some tasty onion rings on the way home. The truth is that I really sucked at cross country and never finished a race anywhere close to the top 5 on my team so when I say that I “ran cross country” what I really mean is that I went for some jogs of a prescribed length and route with other equally uncomfortable mid-pubescent adolescents and got to wear special clothes while doing so. 
Honestly, I have no idea whether I have any natural talent as an endurance athlete. Back then I figured that the other guys were just naturally more talented so I moved on to sports that involved trying to make a round object go over/into/through a net.  While I’m sure that some of the really fast guys on my cross country team had natural ability, the truth is that they understood something back then that took me years to learn: how to suffer.
Pain is Temporary, Victory is Forever
A friend of mine, let’s call him “Austin”, has fantastic and often-recounted story from his high school cross country days. He was, and to this day still is, one of those guys who goes really fast in a straight line.  Whatever the sport, if it involves going fast in a straight line, he’s your guy.  Swimming? Yep.  Cycling? Check. Running? Yes.  Speedwalking? Probably. ow, Austin has real athletic talent when it comes to endurance sports.  He qualified and raced Ironman Kona last year and has been competing in straight-line sports since elementary school. But, Austin’s greatest asset is to push himself harder than anybody I know. There is an index I use to measure self-inflicted suffering scale (SISS).  It goes to eleven.  Austin, unlike pretty much anybody I know, is capable of going to eleven on the SISS pretty much at will. 
Austin ran cross country in middle school also.  Unlike me, he was consistently vying for points and quite often the win.  Anyway the story goes something like this. It is districts and EVERYTHING is on the line.  The problem is that a new kid has just moved to town who has been jeopardizing his chances of being district champ.  Austin goes out fast--way too fast--and ends up an incoherent stumbling mess at the finish line.  He is convinced that somebody is tilting the earth beneath his feet (in reality he was just falling over). Then he “sees the light” and, convinced he is dying, starts bequeathing all of his worldly possessions to his friends and teammates in the presence of his distraught mother.  Just as the EMTs are inserting the IV into his arm he is heard shouting “pain is temporary, victory is forever” (note that he didn’t actually win the race) then immediately passes out.
There are so many instances of Austin going to eleven on the SISS throughout his athletic career.  Pretty much this exact scene is repeated by him three years later in high school. Then, during his first marathon a few years later, he was on pace to go sub-3 hours by mile 20. At the finish line, 3:00 passes, then 3:15, then 3:30. Finally at about 3:45, a bedraggled Austin totally covered in dirt with a twig sticking out of his hair comes stumbling up to the line. It took him just over 2 hours to run the first 20 miles and almost two hours to run the last 6. Apparently, somewhere between mile 20 and 22 (nobody is quite sure where) he decided that it was time to take a nap so he crawled into some bushed and slept for some 30 minutes before waking back up and finishing the race. 
I began my relationship with suffering on my road bike after college on the hills that surround San Francisco and Oakland but I cemented my love of suffering once I began racing ‘cross. The best cyclists in the world have a rare combination of natural talent and the ability to take themselves to eleven. I think Jens Voigt is the poster child of this.
Though I’ll never possess the natural talent of a world class cyclist, for me learning to love suffering has been the key to making do with what my momma’ gave me.   Good tidings and happy suffering to you this ‘Cross season.  
Mouth turns into a square at SISS Level 9