My brother and I slept in a grass hut on stilts twenty meters from a place the locals called Sunset Point, where a big tree had fallen out onto the reef and in the gloaming young Israelis just out of the army and sleepy-eyed Japanese and the occasional worldly Swede would sit on the tree and smoke hash or heroine from Rajasthan. The island’s main road terminated amidst a thicket of banana trees and palm fronds by the beach nearby and Bengali tourists or families from Mumbai would step out of Jeeps to walk in their suits and saris along the sand. The reef was meant to be one of the best in the Andamans for diving, and every night we heard stories of manta ray sightings, sea cows and flying fish.
After pedaling through jungle for five minutes we hit pavement. There wasn’t much traffic. Sometimes a motorcycle with an entire family piled on, or an auto rickshaw with a lone fat businessman sweating inside. The school marked the outskirts of the village, the only one on the island. My brother rode ahead a little. We’d been some months in the tropics and had achieved the cadence of life that climate promotes amongst the fortunate. He wore only short soccer shorts and flip-flops, his skin freckled dark and rubbed smooth by sand and salt.
The village center consisted of a little market, a machine shop, a restaurant, the police station, the hospital, a barber. To the left was the jetty where most every day you could catch a ferry to Havelock Island or Port Blair. At the other end of town was a diesel power plant, its generators humming. A herd of goats slept on the blacktop and my brother rang his bicycle bell at them but they didn’t move so we went around. Some kids played cricket. Sometimes bigger animals crossed the road, itinerant sacred cows or working water buffalo. The locals also used the asphalt’s hard flat radiant surface to sort and dry the grain they harvested, and we often had to swerve around their crop.
It took an hour to reach the other end of the road at a beach on the opposite side of the island. This beach, being much further from the jetty, was even more abandoned. Only a guy with a machete selling coconuts was there and he was asleep. My brother said it felt like Lost and I agreed, though I’d never seen the show. We went in the water, floating on our backs once we’d gotten past the breakers, and then, back on shore, drank water from the plastic bottle I’d been carrying in my pack.
After cycling back to town we turned up the island’s only other paved road to see a natural bridge, one of the island’s chief tourist attractions. We stashed our bikes in the trees and walked fifty meters through the jungle and out onto another beach. Kids were collecting shellfish from the tide pools, but they were far away and we couldn’t even hear them although we could see they were speaking. The natural bridge loomed far overhead. “We’re very far away now,” my brother said, his eyes half closed as if it was all a dream.
My friend Seymour and I started out at my father’s house on the north slope of Twin Peaks and rode down through the Haight. Some bums were playing ukuleles. He said I looked like a hipster because I had a vintage road bike and big glasses and wore my pants rolled up and no socks. I said he looked like a tourist because he rode a cruiser like all the tourists who rent bikes to ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. We passed a block party around Fillmore. I ran every stop sign I could but Seymour made a show of following traffic laws, slowing down at intersections and throwing out primitive hand signals.
We hit Market and suddenly were riding with a couple of guys on fixed-gears who had to skid their tires sometimes ten feet to stop. Traffic was thick, cars, cabs, buses, trolleys, pedestrians. Wind whipped up the urban canyon from the bay. Seymour’s fork was a little loose but it didn’t matter. We were weaving between trucks and always getting to the front of the line at red lights and even riding up on the sidewalk a few times. It was like a video game.
There was a street fair along the Embarcadero and we turned towards Fisherman’s Wharf. So many beautiful people were jogging along the bay it was almost impossible to stay upright. Most people don’t seem to have any idea how beautiful they are, which makes them all the more beautiful for their modesty. The wharf was swamped with tourists. We took pictures beside an old battleship and saw the guy who hides behind the fake bush and scares passersby beneath Ghirardelli Square. Kids swam at the marina; Fort Mason was packed with BBQs and Frisbees.
A wedding was underway at the Palace of Fine Arts. We stopped for water. A strong headwind slowed our journey beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. A few sailboats bobbed around on the Sausalito side and a big Hanjin barge was outbound, Oakland to the open ocean. Our big push was up the hill through the Presidio. By the time we got to the Emanu-El temple in the Richmond it was dark. We cruised down Arguello, across Clement, Geary, and Balboa, past the Indian Consulate and Rossi Pool, and into Golden Gate Park at Fulton. There were bums and sun-dazed weekenders still dozing on the grass, not realizing time was passing.
Finally we stopped amidst the pollarded trees at the musical concourse. A few Chinese were doing tai qi in the dark. After a rest we rode past Kezar, where the 49ers had once played, back to my father’s place, a treehouse of sorts with a big view of Saint Ignatius. We watched the new Lost episode. Seymour told me that night he was getting divorced and didn’t know just what he was living for anymore. He left before dawn the next morning. That was the last time I saw him.
I got up at five in the morning and had a cup of pu’er and walked down the concrete stairs to where my bike was locked up. I’d bought it cheap from a black (stolen) market, so I was always waiting for karma to kick in and someone to steal it from me (which someone eventually did). I rode out of my apartment complex, Tian Fu Hua Yuan, and into the streets of Yulin, one of central Chengdu’s wealthier neighborhoods, which always appeared a little uncanny when empty at that early hour, considering the unbelievable traffic which choked it all day. I stopped to buy a bag of baozi from a shop with the steamers stacked high in front. I was a regular and didn’t even need to order. By the time I reached the ring road the rush was on, and I crossed the twelve lanes at the light in the company of some fifty other cyclists and pedestrians.
It was the end of the term and an easy day for me. I had let the students pick something in English to watch and later be tested on. They’d picked Lost. Go figure. I rode right into the guarded cycle barn, free for staff, and collected a token from the clerk, who was smoking and reading the paper. He was not from Sichuan, and didn’t speak with the region’s lispy exotic accent, so I could converse with him OK. He would still be there at lunch when I rode to eat Korean food with my advanced lit class, and when I stumbled in to collect my ride in the dark, after the long day. Then I’d smoke one with him.
Yulin was quiet at night as well, though not like the morning. I stopped at a noodle shop. They knew me there too and always added extra chilies to my bowl. The two streets which intersected in front of my place were known to foreigners as Flower Street and Hooker Street, and the reasons were self-evident, even at the midnight hour. I rode, my cardboard carton of noodles dangling in a bag from one handlebar, into the subterranean bike garage beneath my building, and locked it again. Then I walked the eight stories up to my apartment and collapsed on the couch, slurping my noodles and watching Billy Wilder movies with my roommates, who ran the city’s only climbing gym. From our window we could see a great swath of Chengdu. No matter how cold it got, those lights always exuded some strange warmth we learned to live on. In the spring I left, and haven’t been back.
We rode downstream, Jess and I. She wore striped socks pulled up to her knees and high-top sneakers and UCLA track shorts and a bright pink Bon Jovi T-shirt without sleeves and a red white and blue headband and BluBlockers. We passed an old logjam, the air thick with ponderosa pine pollen. A marmot cackled at us from across the way. We pedaled past Benham Falls, where the ashes of my mother and my dog were scattered, and down towards the flatter waters around Lava Island.
It was a wonderland for raptors. Cooper’s, red-tailed, and sharp-shinned hawks all hunted the waters, as well as falcons and eagles. We stopped at Slough Camp and smoked a joint. Jess had that sad yet compelling faraway look that was her trademark. She was kind of a lipstick lesbian. I’d been in love with her since high school. She tried me on for size once but that was it. In me she only saw a friend, a shoulder to cry on, a confidant. We’d touch, but she never returned those sparks I reserved within myself just for her. Maybe it was a little tragic, a little trite. Anyway, that’s how it was with us.
Kayakers passed on the river. The pot made us warm and energetic. We went faster now, the wind whipping our hair horizontal. At Meadow Camp we stopped for a swim, feeling the layers of dust washed from our skin. We lay on the grass in the sun. There were houses, mansions, across the river. The bluffs above us were popular among rock climbers. There was a long challenging traverse, innumerable bouldering problems, some nice cracks and chimneys. “You know there’s still snow in the Ochocos?” she said.
Jess disappeared later that year. Some said she had gone to Guam to work as a stripper for the US soldiers stationed there. Some said she had gone to tend her dying mother somewhere in Saskatchewan. I go take that river ride sometimes and it always ends in tears. Why do I keep doing it then? It’s like that Don Henley song: “Those days are gone forever, I should just let them go but …” That’s a big but. Some people have the one they love, and some have the love itself. Far be it from me to say which is greater.
Twink and I got off the bus and there was this cat in a Tiger Woods shirt offering us a cheap room to rent so we went with him. I was still rubbing my eyes from the long trip over from Marrakesh. Turned out he rented bicycles too, and in the morning, after a special tagine of thirty-nine spices, he gave us the bikes and a map and we took off toward a village some fifty kilometers away, through a deep arid canyon rumored to contain magical light.
Dwellings were built right into the cliffs. The light ricocheted around on the rocks. Twink was happy, riding with no hands and impressing the locals with her textbook Arabic. At the far end of the canyon we met up with Tiger Woods’s buddy, who ran a little guest house and was going to put us up for the night. There were some Spaniards there smoking hash. They’d been a few weeks in the desert and their hair had been bleached by the sun. They described driving at night in the dunes, where you could barely even keep with the road. The stone walls of the room radiated heat long after the sun had gone down, and we sat up late, the air thick with smoke, drinking mint tea much too sweet and talking about the smell of the air, US foreign policy, and the Internet. It was past midnight when we went to bed.
We slept in a big room with a dusty stone floor and no glass in the windows. I woke in the middle of the night and looked out at the yard. A few sleeping goats, the bicycles leaning against a shed, the Spaniards’ Jeep. By the time I got back to sleep it was getting light.
When I woke, Twink was gone. I questioned the proprietor of the guest house. Between us we could speak a little broken Spanish, and he explained she’d left in the Jeep. He said I could leave her bike with him, eventually a tourist would come along and want to ride it the other way. So I rode alone back to Tiger’s place. He’d spoken with his friend on the phone. He must have felt bad for me because he didn’t charge me for the bikes, and even gave me a free bed. The next day I went back to the bus station. I still hadn’t decided whether to head north, back towards Tangier and Europe, or the opposite way, towards Mauritania and the desert, deeper into Africa. The ticket counter cleared and I stepped up, smiled, and asked the clerk if she spoke any English.