I was recently speaking about the insanity of fixed gear biking, that is, bikes that don’t have brakes. I first discovered them many years ago one memorable Halloween night on the hot sticky-duck streets of Hong Kong. More recently I discovered my unpublished article about that experience, which was used as part of the script for the Hong Kong and Macau episode of Word Travels. Fans of biking, couriers and fixed gears will definitely enjoy. It also feels good to find a home for my long-lost and wayward words.
My bicycle accelerates into the crowd, zigzags through a small gap into the street, dodges oncoming traffic before turning sharply left into a side alley. A brick wall brushes my shoulder as I slice across two trams, ramp over a sidewalk, and pedal towards a major intersection. Sweat has drenched the shirt beneath my daypack, and in a city known to rush, people stare and wonder: why the big hurry? I have just a few minutes to get to the White Stag bar, do ten push-ups in front of someone called Big Glenn, have him sign my manifesto, and shoot off into the traffic to find the next checkpoint. I’m too busy playing chicken with traffic to ponder how many times I’ve almost tasted road burn. In a city famous for its pulse, fixed-gear Alley Cat bike challenges really gets Hong Kong racing.
A growing worldwide underground sub-culture, local Alley Cat races have their origin with bicycle messengers in North America. In order to test local couriers’ streetwise knowledge, their speed and ability to navigate obstacles, Alley Cat races were set up in cities like Toronto, Philadelphia, Chicago and Vancouver. Legends were born as couriers, often seen racing around these urban centers in dangerous traffic, challenged each other for titles, prizes, but most often fun. Races consist of checkpoints to be reached, and in some cases unusual tasks to be performed on arrival. Upping the thrill factor, most couriers ride fixed-gear bikes that have no brakes, no gears, and require an expert level of control and ability. Fixed gears are popularly used in the courier messenger community because they’re easy to maintain, and for anyone with a job requiring them to run into buildings to deliver packages, the bikes are confusing and difficult for thieves. Hong Kong has seen the emergence of an urban cyclist community, attracted to the lifestyle and challenges of riding on fixed-gears. Amidst the choking car and foot traffic beneath the late-night neon lights of the Central district, I went along for the city’s first unofficial Alley Cat race. When it comes Alley Cat racing, it's important to note that nothing is official anyway.
Em, where's the brakes on these things?
“In Hong Kong, you have the taxis, the cars, the trams, the mini-buses, buses and pedestrians, it’s a little crazy but we’re doing it for the challenge,” says Brian Fu, one of the organizers. “The key is, you never stop, you run into a problem, you turn right, you keep moving,” says Jeff Welch, a native of Washington DC and courier veteran who designed the race route. “People have always looked at messengers in a special way, with a mixture of envy and lack of respect,” he tells me. “They’re attracted to the freedom and the lifestyle, but repulsed because of the sweat, danger, and dirt.” With road rage, traffic, and pollution, it’s a high-risk game, but the money can be good - top couriers can earn more than $70,000 a year delivering envelopes. “You’re on the bike nine hours a day, you’re almost killed nine times a day, but you get used to it, and you begin to need it,” says Jeff, who has a few dozen Alley Cat races under his belt. For some messengers, including some of Jeff’s friends, the job costs them their lives. Messengers trade war stories about accidents, reminisce about fallen comrades, hold parties, and even attract groupies.
About half a dozen riders meet at 10pm outside a coffee shop. The manifesto is handed out, including a checklist of destinations and tasks that must be reached in order before reaching the finish line. One of them requires racers to find two girls and tells them that they are “sooo... beautiful!” Another requires us to find a bald man named 9-Ball and rub his head. In each case, a third party must sign our manifesto to prove the task has been accomplished. We count down to the start, and the race is on, each contestant racing off into the crowds. I decide to shadow a more experienced veteran, since without him I’d be lost in the traffic and spaghetti streets within seconds. We pedal frantically, every second counts. A policeman shouts at me from the sidewalk, but I’ve already disappeared around a corner. Alley Cat racing is a do-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of activity. Biking in a light drizzle at night in Hong Kong traffic is not for the fainthearted, neither is racing on a bike that, perhaps I forgot to mention, doesn’t stop with squeeze on the handlebar. But with the wind in my hair, the exhilarating speed and the quasi-legal thrill , I can certainly understand the attraction – it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about having fun, and hopefully surviving to trade stories at the finish line.
Many years ago, before I set out on my first round-the-world adventure, I was faced with an intimidating challenge:
How do you pack for 12 months on the road, travelling across the diverse landscapes and climates of 24 countries?
I knew I’d have to pack light, remaining nimble for the opportunities while avoiding excessive weight, unwanted attention, and painful waiting at airport arrivals. I knew I’d have to be prepared for any situation. I knew my clothing would have to be lightweight, high performance, and work in any number of combinations.
I knew all this, and still I got it all wrong.
The last-minute jeans I threw into my backpack (at the insistence of my Mom) were used more than other garment in my possession. My colour combinations were horrific. Gray pants and gray shirts? My hiking boots were too heavy and I had to buy cheap sneakers on the road that quickly fell apart. I brought way too many medications and toiletries when I could have just picked up what I needed when I needed it. And I did not heed the sound advice from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that the only thing a traveller really needs is a good towel. And despite reading that one should pack everything and then halve it, I packed way too much, not accounting for the stuff I’d inevitable buy along the way (Indian hippie-threads! Thai pants! Souvenir T-Shirts!) to cram into my overstuffed backpack.
In the years since, I’ve became much more adept at packing, so much so that I can usually pack an hour before leaving for the airport. Two very solid pieces of advice have always stuck with me:
Some of the most impressive travellers I’ve met pack everything they need for a two week hot climate adventure in their day pack. Personally, I’m not one for hard-core packing sacrifices. I’d rather pack at least a week’s worth of clothing than scrub one of two pairs of underwear every night. Still, you can stuff a lot into your carry-on, or my spanking new, lightweight 69-litre wheeled duffel.
For my family’s upcoming 10-month adventure to four countries, I’m heeding all these words of advice. Victorinox (Swiss Army) have provided us with outstanding luggage options, from wheeled duffels to medium sized hard cases for the kids. Travelling with children, of course, is a different ball game. They can burn through clothing like a pyro with a matchbox, oblivious to the time and effort cost of laundering clothes covered in yoghurt, snot, mud, cream cheese, blood, drool, vomit, or any combination of the above. They’re also a lot less amenable to clothes choices. My daughter already insists on wearing her stained Elsa princess shirt for every and any occasion.
A dozen years of professional travel has certainly taken the panic out of the process. The same rules apply, as they always have, even if we’re packing diapers and wipes, stuffies and bedtime books. You lay it all out on the bed. Pack the best combinations for that one incredible day where anything can happen. And while anything you forget can be replaced or picked up on the road, the most important packing tip comes from within: Wherever you go, it’s essential to pack the right state of mind.
A recent article brought to light hilarious predictions of travel in the future that didn't come true. I've made my own. Flying to fashion, entertainment to passports, here's my crystal ball of what the future of travel could look like.
I’m on a 15-hour direct flight from Sydney to Vancouver, an impossible flight twenty five years ago. Lighter aircraft using better technology means we can fly further and cheaper than ever before. Through the curtain a few rows up, I see business class passengers (the lucky bastards) fully reclined in their cubicles. Comfort and on-board entertainment is leaping forward. Perhaps one day we’ll see flying cruise ships, where it will be possible to reach anywhere in unimagined comfort. Perhaps we’ll have floating hotels, or stopovers in the sky. New environmentally friendly fuels generate power at a fraction of the cost, as the world becomes increasingly smaller, even for us here in Economy Class.
I remember backpacking through Europe many years ago, completely bewildered by the array and diversity of currencies. Not one to dwell on the socio-political impact of the euro (or the sinister whisperings around the so-called amero) but there’s no doubt it has made travelling easier. A worldwide currency? These days I use my credit card as much as I can, or withdraw local currency from global banking networks. Imagine a world where one card carries everything you could possibly need. Some people might argue we’re already there, but then some people should visit the developing world before making such assumptions.
The cameras get smaller, the memory gets bigger, the pictures get clearer. Here’s a device that fits via a radio frequency onto the cornea of your eye. All you have to do is blink, and a perfect HD video or high-resolution photo is recorded, and immediately sorted according to a voice command. Virtual visual experiences, like the ones featured in the classic underrated sci-fi movie Strange Days, could take you on lifelike adventures to foreign shores without leaving your living room. Until someone invents such a device, you’re stuck with travel writers like me.
James Bond zips around the world, looking fantastic, carrying nothing so much as a cell phone charger, yet with a different pair of sunglasses in every destination. Maybe Q invented a pair of sunglasses that double as video monitors, connected to a 10 terabyte harddrive the size of a pinhead. It’s loaded with movies, TV, guidebooks, a global cellphone, e-books, GPS maps, music, photos, translators, wireless in-ear receivers and recipes for gin martinis. James Bond doesn’t have time to go the movies, pick up a book, or carry an cellphone. One pair of shades, and we’ve got everything we need. Including an electronic locater, when we inevitably lose them at the backseat of a taxi.
In our increasingly digital age, it’s almost quaint to think we travel with a little book that is absolutely essential for our safe passage. Be it immigration officials or dodgy police officers who want to see our papers, our ID’s can instead be written in our very bodies, from our fingerprints to our retinas. Biometric scanners should be able to tag us wherever we are, although the potential for a ruthless big brother scenario is just as probable as the potential for less hassle.
Our safety is of such concern that we’ve been reduced to confiscating toothpaste on airplanes, or blowing up suspicious items like someone’s forgotten shopping bag. Unhackable E-passports should help lock down the bad guys, but if there’s a will there’s a way. That’s why X-ray vision capable of identifying weapons and contagious illnesses will hone in on everyone getting on a bus, plane or subway (privacy advocates will ensure it is not subject to abuse.). Meanwhile, political or environment turbulence will be analyzed information and quickly distributed by a panel of professionals, trained to avoid disseminating panic and fear. Hey, I can dream…
Besides the sunglasses equipped with every gadget you can think of (the failure of Google Glasses notwithstanding), I look forward to clothes with integrated nanobots that automatically refresh, clean and kill all foreign bacteria. Furthermore, one item of clothing will be able to change colour, shape and style depending on what you need it for. Surely this is what our favourite superspies Bourne and Bond use. Nanotechnology will also give us a hat that stretches into a hammock or cot, a belt that transforms into a sleeping bag, and while we’re at it, a jacket that turns into an indestructible mobile panic room, should you find yourself needing a sudden emergency exit.
The Final Frontier
Space tourism has already started, and much like tourism in its very early days, the final frontier is reserved for those of incredible wealth and means. At some point in the future, major hotel chains will open on the moon, and Vegas-style space stations will follow. After all, what goes on in Space, stays in Space. The discovery that quantum physics and string theory can bend the space-time continuum will open up new planets for brave explorers, and a few months later, name-tagged package tours. “Off the beaten track” will make way for the “off the chartered galaxy”, and expect a series of guidebooks, Lonely Universe, to shepherd budget-minded earthlings to the seven corners of the galaxy.
Not all bags are equal.
Suitcases are entirely functional, a means to an end. You want them to arrive in one piece, protect your contents, wheel with a degree of ease, and when the handle snaps or the wheels jam or the airline sends it on a one-way ticket to Togo, well shucks, you’ll just have to get a new, snazzier one. A suitcase is an acquaintance.
Backpacks are a different beast, especially when you use them for long journeys or epic hikes. You get to know your backpack. Appreciate its complexities, the inner pouches and deceptively large side pockets. You practice and perfect the technique for lifting them up and balancing them on your shoulders. They are adorned with stains and badges and sticky goop picked up on the floor of rural Indian train stations. You pray for your backpack’s arrival on the baggage carousel, and would be devastated if it never showed up. A backpack is a friend.
A Daypack follows you around everywhere and holds everything that is important in your travelling world – laptop, camera, books, journal, tablet, headphones, notebooks, adaptors, back-up credit card, medication, lucky charms. It never leaves your side, a trusted companion who always has your back. When you eat, you sling it around your legs so nobody can race off with it. It’s been your suitcase, your bullet proof vest, your tortoise shell. Your Daypack hangs around even when you stop travelling.
I first went travelling with an old Karrimor backpack that somehow survived about 30 countries. It lived through trains in Zambia and rat raids in Laos. It was hurled onto chicken buses in Guatemala and hurled on in Albania. I only retired the poor bastard because the zipper kept breaking and even repair shops couldn’t keep it going. I shed a tear when I let the old boy go. I’ve never used a suitcase, although I do use a small one for overnight trips that Tourism Victoria gifted me at a media event. Their logo is covered in obnoxious stickers, like Lionel Ritchie saying Hello, a Deadpool face, and a picture of our planet with the word Fragile all over it. Hope they don't mind.
My Daypack has been through various incarnations, because I’m always looking for a better mousetrap, the Bag of all Bags, the Holy of Holies. It must hold everything, in its easily accessible place. A fine Daypack must be comfortable, durable, and ready to double as both pillow and shield. When laptop pouches were first introduced, I had to have one for the sheer sake of efficiency. I’ve used an Eddie Bauer dayback for years, which has always grated me, because my name isn’t Eddie Bauer, so I don’t see why I should have his name on my Daypack.
My latest contender is called The Every Day Backpack 30 from a company called Peak Design. It was created by engineers and designers to “meet the needs of creative, adventurous people.” They got their start on Kickstarter, and now have 14 employees producing over 20 products that win all sorts of awards. Like myself, these are people who take bags very, very seriously. So they sent me the Every Day and I’ve been using it, well, every day. Things to know about this bag:
After working with Crumpler for a while, I decided their bags were simply too heavy to be of any practical use. When it comes to bags, designers should take a page out of Scandinavian design: Function over Form. It feels good to have this very practical DayPack, but it will take a few countries to break it in.
Unless I’m hiking or taking chicken buses, a wheeled duffel is now my choice of backpack. So many things died in 2016, including my wheeled duffel that had seen off a dozen countries, and the manufacturer that made it go bankrupt. Note: any product with a lifetime guarantee only works if the company remains alive. My bag resembled the actor Rip Torn. Everything came apart, except the wheels, which rolled strong and free. So I went to MEC and bought a new Wheeled Duffel, which is squat and ugly but who cares so long as it keeps showing up at the end of the long-haul.
Bags. We need them. They need us. As for what we pack in them, it's easy: The most important thing to pack, whenever you travel, is the right state of mind.
I don't have a photo of me and the Everyday. Please enjoy this woman gazing towards the skyline of a city.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.