No, Really: I’m Still Here, Still Teaching

Wow, was I so busy teaching that really did let the entire summer slip by without a post?

Wasn’t intentional; just kind of happened. Guess my interest in my blogging hobby waxes and wanes, as does my interest in just about anything. I’ve never been very good at monomania; must be my Gemini rising sign.

So let’s hit the highlights, shall we?

 Still Teaching the Kids Some English

Teacher's got a posse: Jeff and his teenage students -- the cool ones.

I’m coming up on a year teaching in Viet Nam. I was fortunate that the third time was a charm and did pay for all; in terms of teaching it’s been a great year and I consider myself pretty fortunate to have the experience under my belt. More about this later.

I will say that part of the break from blogging was a matter of necessity, as I taught a summer school class, on top of my usual full-time schedule. I had a choice in this, but not really — I still needed to make up time that I had lost from work because of my quadriceps tendon tear, and this put me back in the black, in terms of hours. Plus, I had a good class and enjoyed them. But it left very little free time for yours truly.

Incidentally, the photos below with the kids in yellow t-shirts looking sleepy or eating ice-cream? That was my summer school class at the Sai Gon Zoo field trip. The one’s pictured above were my good teenage class (not the evil one). I loved these kids, and I was sorry to have to give up this class to a new teacher after a number of months, in order to take on a new adult class. But then my adult class takes me out for Thai food and beer. 😉

Teacher Jeff's ILA summer school class at the Sai Gon Zoo. Wake up kids! We'll start having fun soon. I promise!The Joy of Proximity

Plus, I bookended — that’s not really a verb — my summer school class with short vacations back to Thailand. I fear its food and culture has gotten under my skin, in spite of the rough experience teaching in a public school a few years ago. Again, more on this later.

Not Gimping Around Nearly So Much

My leg continues to improve; I can walk up and down steps now like a normal person (almost). Walking down stairs sometimes still proves a little challenging, especially after a long day in the classroom (i.e. Saturdays and Sundays).

But it’s not back to normal. Everyone keeps asking me if it’s back to normal, and when I say not quite then they ask when. I never know what to tell them. My ankle injury in high school, the only injury I’ve suffered close to the magnitude of my severed quadriceps tendon, literally took years before it felt “normal.” Even today, it’s not quite the same as the other ankle.

I need to get on a bike, but I’ve decided against buying one or shipping mine here to Viet Nam, as I’m going to be traveling at the end of October through the first of the year, ultimately relocating back to Thailand for a time. If you’re one of the two regular readers of this blog, you’re thinking “Wait, what? Really? Thought you’d never go back to Thailand.” I know, I know, but never say never, right? Reference above; more later.

P.S. Speaking of cycling, no less than Lucas Brunelle commented on a post I made last year about doping, cycling and Lance Armstrong. You may not know who urban cycling and alleycat proponent Lucas Brunelle is, but if you’re involved with cycling at all, you’ve probably heard the name; he’s a polarizing figure, to be sure. While I don’t agree with everything he does or has to say, he clearly isn’t afraid to march to his own drum, and that always gets respect in my book.

Plus it’s just fucking cool that somewhat like that commented on my blog, particularly when it’s been lying fallow, as of late.

Buying a Real Camera

Lego ninja in the Circle of Death I still haven’t replaced my big boy camera yet, although I’m really feeling the urge to get back into photography again, full time. More on this later, but I think after the first of the year I’m going to embark on a 365 photo-a-day project. I don’t seem to do well without deadlines, in terms of creativity, so I think I need to set myself some deadlines. I was thinking I might do that with blogging as well. I don’t know if I’ll have the bandwidth for both though; we’ll see. If only I was independently wealthy.

On the plus side, I have a decent laptop now with discrete graphics, so I can tinker with 3D modeling and rendering again, as well as use the latest version of Photoshop — which now has a subscription service, thank Dog — and it is effing sweet, let me tell you.

Pictured here, among other things, is a test shot — among many — I made playing around with my Canon G12. The G12 is at the end of the day, a point-and-shoot toy. But, it is a sophisticated, rather grand toy, one that I’m quite happy with as far as having a snapshot type of camera goes. Definitely more on this subject later.

Unfriended the Entire World. Bitches.

Joy of Tech: finding ultimate bliss by deleting your Facebook profileI quit Assbook several months ago and haven’t looked back. Haven’t missed it. In fact the only time I think about it is when I see someone at work on Facebook, or someone asks me to friend them/message them on Facebook. It’s funny, no one asks if you are on Facebook anymore, it’s just assumed.

Perhaps I’ll write more on this later, but then again, maybe not. There’s a lot of interesting things going on in the world at large and in my own little corner of it. Why waste time blathering about Assbook? Long story short, there was no one thing that caused me to leave it; it wasn’t concerns over privacy — which are quite legitimate, however — or anything like that. Just got tired of everything and everyone reduced to the lowest common denominator in a festival of the mundane.

I just don’t give a tinker’s damn what you had for breakfast or that you are leaving to pick up your kids at school. Unless you are having breakfast on top of Kilimanjaro or are picking up your kids from their first day at Juliard, it’s not significant and I don’t care. Beyond mundane updates Facebook has become the email forwarding for the 21st Century; at one point I had all my friends trained not to forward me cat videos and whatnot. Now, of course, they post all that shit to Assbook. Friends I haven’t spoken with in years — strangers, at this point — don’t reply when I send them emails, but they ask me to watch some idiot on YouTube.

Meh.

Maybe I’m officially old, but that’s okay. I’m happy to say you kids and your social network can get off my lawn. *shakes fist*

As for the few friends that have contacted me wondering where I went, you’ve got my email address and this URL. And now you know that I’m still alive and doing well.

And I’ll sign off with “awwwwwwwwwww” image:

Phuc stuffs his face with ice cream after a hot day at the Sai Gon zoo.

Ruptured Quadriceps Tendon? What Ruptured Quadriceps Tendon?

Fuck Yeah! I can walk! And welcome all you meme googlers.Rap My Knuckes and Jump for Joy, I Got a Clean Bill of Health from Dr. McCoy

Actually it was from Dr. Phat, my orthopedic doctor and surgeon here in Ho Chi Minh City, née Sai Gon. And I should qualify clean bill of health. He is more than satisfied with my recovery from surgery thus far, terming it – and I quote – amazing. I guess it’s not common for folks who suffer a complete tear of their quadriceps tendon to be back at work full time three weeks after surgery, and walking around unaided even before that.

Yay me. And here’s some blatant SEO: fuck yeah.

He said there was no reason for me to come back to see him, unless I developed problems of some sort in the future, but he doesn’t foresee any. Or, of course, if I bust something else on my body involving bones or muscles. Being the klutz that I am, this is not entirely beyond the realm of probability.

But does that mean my leg is healed? That “it’s all better?” as I’m asked frequently? No, not at all. I still walk with a slight limp; most people wouldn’t even notice it, although it becomes more pronounced throughout the day if I’m walking and or standing a lot. While I can walk both up stairs and down now, I still need a railing to hold onto to walk down. This isn’t out of fear of my leg buckling – which still occasionally happens – but simply because my muscles still aren’t strong enough.

Walking up stairs I can do without a railing for one flight of stairs; if there is two, there had better be a railing or a wall to brace against. At the end of a Saturday or Sunday in which I normally teach six hours a day and often times eight, my leg, could it verbally express itself, would say: “Yo, dude, screw them stairs and screw you if you expect me to do down them. Unless the building is on fire, we’re taking the elevator, champ.”

And my leg does express itself frequently through its individual component parts; it is almost constantly sore, to one degree or another. Use my leg too much on any given day, and my Frankenstein quadriceps tendon lets me know, using even more colorful language than that evidenced above. Plus the rest of my muscles in my leg suffer degrees of fatigue and soreness. My calf is pretty much always sore, all day, all the time. The IT band in my right leg often weighs in at the end of the day to let me know that it is indeed done for the day, and could use a good stretching. Needless to say my hamstring and quadriceps muscles also frequently have things to say, although not as much as the rest of the lot.

Bilateral symmetry: you're doing it wrong. Three months and few weeks after surgery for a torn quadriceps tendonMy right leg and I have frequent conversations these days.

I’m still looking at months of physical rehabilitation before “it’s all better.” It will be a least a year or so, in total, before I can walk normally without thinking about it, before my level of muscle (re)development matches that of my left leg – hooray for bilateral symmetry. As Dr. Phat said, the only thing left now is physical therapy, i.e., exercise, and lots of it.

And as you can see, bilateral symmetry – I don’t have it. The muscles in my injured leg are still noticeably underdeveloped compared to my good leg — although I am standing a bit of an angle compared to the mirror; my Franken patella isn’t that much higher than the one in my good leg. But it is higher, because my quadricep and tendon have shortened, as discussed below.

Furthermore, in the interests of posterity and future sufferers of ruptured quadriceps tendons, I’ve done the unthinkable and posted a picture of my pasty white self  in my underwear on the Internet. At least I’ve spared you from having to look at my junk in the process. And frankly that smiley icon is considerably bigger than it needs to be. Add this to my list of things I never thought I’d do or experience – like tearing my quadriceps tendon.

So When Does the Surgical Incision Stop Itching?

The short answer? Years, but then I expected that. Even now, more than three months after the surgery, sometimes the surgical incision site itches. The lengthwise incision minimizes damage to the nerves beneath the skin, avoiding any major ones, but still there is some unavoidable damage – a small price to pay in the long run for the ability to walk again, trust me.

Furthermore, as anyone who has ever dealt with deep scar tissue knows, it takes a long time to … settle down, for lack of a better term. There is some residual healing that takes months; nerve regeneration considerably longer. Plus the resulting scar tissue from a huge incision like this is … sticky, for lack of a better term. Especially where a joint is involved, it doesn’t want to slide and move smoothly with the tissue around it, and it takes a long time to sort itself out.

This is one of several reasons why physical therapy is critical; if the leg is immobile too long, that scar tissue can actually hinder range of motion. I swear, early on in physical therapy, I could feel the scar tissue underneath the skin tugging at the tissue beneath it. My imagination, you say … perhaps.

So yeah, the long and the short of it is I have roughly a circle of skin about an inch or so in diameter on my knee that is numb, and yet sometimes the flesh around it itches. I scratch, rub my knee and life goes on.

When I asked Dr. Phat about this and when I could expect it to subside, he said “years.” Then he looked up at me with a slightly alarmed look on his face, like it just occurred to him that this wasn’t exactly a bedside-mannerly thing to say.

The Venture Brothers' Baron Von Unterbheit: not my high school senior portrait.I smiled and said I expected as much. I had maxillofacial surgery when I was 18 to correct my mandibular prognathism – a fancy way of saying I had my underbite fixed. It wasn’t pronounced at all – I didn’t look like Baron Von Ünderbheit or anything – just a matter of a few millimeters, but I probably would have lost most of my teeth by now if I hadn’t had it corrected. Follow those links if you want to learn more.

The surgery involves cutting out hunks of jawbone, but at the same time avoiding severing a major facial nerve that runs through the jaw bone. Some numbness is unavoidable, as the surgeon has to handle and move the nerve as he cuts through the bone. To this day, some two decades later, I still don’t have complete feeling in a small patch beneath my lower lip. And to this day there is still some phantom itching in this area as the nerves continue their long regenerative process.

Dr. Phat was actually pretty interested in my surgery and recovery from that, asking specific questions about how my jaw was now, the feeling in my lip, etc. But then I suppose that’s kinda his thing. One of his raisons d’etre, as it were.

“Actually Your Quadriceps Tendon is Shorter”

There’s one more thing about this long recovery from a torn quadriceps tendon and the subsequent surgery. As I began to walk again without the aid of a crutch and brace about a month or so ago, I came to have the feeling that my leg was just ever so slightly shorter than the other one — a matter of a millimeter or two, maybe. Also, I noticed that my right foot seems to point a few degrees more laterally to the right, or to the outside, when I walk.

I assumed that these things were probably a combination of my imagination and the fact that my muscles had atrophied so much during six weeks of immobility outside of therapeutic exercises. But I asked Dr. Phat about it, and he said that actually the quadriceps muscle and tendon shortens during recovery when it’s immobile (just take a luck at those ugly legs in the picture above). After all, that’s why it takes so long to recover one’s range of motion.

So perhaps, at least temporarily, my leg could be a millimeter or two shorter than the other one.

As for my foot being in a slightly different position during my walking stride, that is also possible. It may just be a matter of weakened muscles, but as Dr. Phat explained, when surgeons put people’s bits back together, they do their best to put them back the way they were before, but it’s never quite the same.

This I know, too. Nothing is ever the same after a severe orthopedic injury. My junior year in high school I tore the syndesmosis tissue where the tibia and fibia meet at the base of my right leg. A few years before that, I had torn up that same ankle – torn ligaments, bone chips and whatnot. It was literally years before my right ankle ever felt normal, and to this day, it can’t take abuse like my left ankle. A slight sprain or twist that I could walk off in a few minutes on my left ankle means a few days of soreness for my right ankle.

Then there is the dislocated AC joint in my shoulder (again, on my right side; that side of my body is all sorts of messed up) that I’ve been living with for the past decade or so (knobby mountain bike tires and slick rock is a potentially bad combination).

So there you go. If you’re reading this because you’ve ruptured your quadriceps tendon and want to know what you’re in for, you’ve got a long road ahead, my friend. A long, difficult, frustrating road. But I’m here to tell you to hang in there, listen to your doctor, listen to your physical therapist, don’t skip out on your exercises – not if you want to walk again anytime soon – and you will be walking, riding a bike and even running again. But it will be a matter of months.

Did I mention that I jogged the other day? It was only across the physical therapy room at the hospital, and with little baby steps — but those were metaphorical giant leaps. Fuck yeah! Take that, random uncaring universe. Or karma. Once again, sorry Larry.

Ha Ha! Screw You, Universe!

Fuck Yeah! I can walk again. And ride a bike. Up yours, Random Twist of Fate!Today was a glorious day. Less than 10 weeks from the day I suffered a quadriceps tendon rupture  — 67 days, to be precise — almost to the very hour, I bent my leg 115 degrees.

And I got on that stationary bike in the physical therapy room of the hospital. The one that has teased and taunted me lo these many weeks. And I was spinning. Three hundred and sixty degrees, I followed the pedals around.

And it was glorious.

And then I walked around my neighborhood here in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Without a crutch. Granted, they were short, slow steps, and my gate was wonky, and at times my right leg was a little wobbly, but I. fucking. walked.

And it was glorious.

As you may recall previously here on the Gecko’s Bark, I had been disillusioned, as I had been literally stuck at 100 degrees, in terms of my ability to bend my injured leg. But after a week of somewhat aggressive stretching — frequent and just to the point of pain and a wee bit beyond at times —  today I could bend my leg 115 degrees.

And today I got on the stationary bike, and instead of rotating forward, and stopping when I couldn’t bend my leg any farther, and then rotating in the opposite direction until I reached the same point again — I’ve been stuck doing that for three weeks now — today, I sent those pedals through 360 degrees of rotation. I could feel the tightness in my knee, but it didn’t hurt.

BOOHYAH!

It was bliss. Mistress Lien, my therapist, had to um, firmly insist that I step down after 15 minutes — and she kept insisting, firmly, that I wasn’t to spin faster than 25 kilometers an hour on the lowest setting of resistance.

And she also decided after doing a bunch of new exercises — oh, she was cruel mistress today, my physiotherapist —  that my atrophied gam had recovered enough strength that I should begin walking around without the crutch. More than just around my apartment.

Outside. In the world. Walk. Around. Without a crutch.

It was scary. Like the first time you have sex is scary.

And I did.

Walk, that is. And my entire leg is tired and sore, my hip flexor, which has to pick up the majority of the slack by my weak-ass quadriceps and hamstring muscles, not to mention my abused calf muscle — well, let’s just say it’s a good thing my hip flexor can’t express itself in words. Because it would be cussing a blue streak that would make a drunk sailor blush.

As for the point of injury, it’s very sore and puffy … kinda like after the first time I had sex! *insert rim shot here*

But I walked. And I spun.

Glorious.

Stick it up your ass, Universe. Blow me, Fate. I can walk again.

Damn My Quadriceps, I’m Walking (Sort Of) Home. Through the Park, Even

A technical diagram illustrating where the quadriceps tendon rupture occurred. Well it’s been a few days since I whined about my torn quadriceps tendon, so I figured I’d remedy that. Saturday, Feb. 25 – heh, just realized it’s a leap year – will be nine weeks to the day I had my surgery on Christmas Eve. I had a therapy appointment today – the physical kind, not the head-shrinking kind – and I had hoped in the back of my mind that today might be the day that I could actually spin on the stationary bike.

I don’t know whether or not it’s because I am a once and future avid cyclist, or what, but that is some sort of milestone for me, psychologically. I can walk now, sort of. I don’t use my crutch around the apartment except when I get in and out of the shower, and then it’s just a matter of being safe. I really can’t walk with a normal gate yet – my quadriceps muscle and the related muscles, aductors, abductors and so forth, along with my calf continue to get stronger, but they ain’t there yet — but I can walk unaided for short distances. Out in the real world though, I generally use the crutch, but as little as possible in terms of weight bearing.

But for the past two weeks, in spite of doing my therapeutic exercises with a near religious monomania, for the second week in a row, I couldn’t bend my leg beyond 100 degrees. You need to be able to bend it about 110- to about 120-degrees to spin on a bike. Based on others’ experiences with recovering from a quadriceps tendon rupture, most people don’t get beyond 100 degrees until they are into their third month of recovery – I’ve just begun mine, so I guess I shouldn’t be pissing and moaning.

But still.

I have dreams about running and riding my bike. And it’s like well … it’s like dreaming about sex. It’s so intense and so real and so amazing and then, well, then I wake up. And I look at my leg and think, unlike a sex dream, I can’t do anything about this except be patient.

Once more: Sucks, this.

Strutting: as much as one can with a quadriceps tendon rupture and a crutch

On the plus side, I can actually walk around when I run errands nearby, instead of having to take taxis three blocks. The xe-om drivers cry out “Motorbike you?! Motorbike you?!” But I shake my head and say “không cảm ơn” and strut on by – as much as a guy with a crutch and a mild limp can strut. Even in this manner it still feels good to walk. Sometimes I over do it and by the end of the day my leg is more swollen and sore than perhaps it should be, but to hell with it.

I’m walking, so take that, Universe. Put that in your metaphorical pipe and suck on it.

And further to the plus side, I was walking home early this evening through a nearby park here in Ho Chi Minh City, née Sai Gon, when someone approached me and struck up a conversation. I was a little leery and guarded at first, as I live on the edge of the backpacker ghetto, and for every time a nice Vietnamese person who just wants to be sociable and practice a bit of English, there is someone on the make looking to earn a quick buck one way or another.

For example, the first time I walked through the park after my surgery, about two weeks or so after, I was still in the big-blue straight-leg brace, using both crutches, and my knee was still watermelon-sized and discolored. Sure enough, a young lady came up and launched into the “Handsome man where you go?” routine. “You wan’ massa? Boom boom?”

I sighed, looked down at my leg, looked back at her and smiled sardonically. “Do I look like I’m in any condition for boom boom?”

To which she replied, without missing a beat, “It no problem. I get on top, ride like cow girl! I go wit you?”

Sigh. “Không cảm ơn.” That means “no thank you,” in case you hadn’t sussed that out by now.

Anyway, fortunately for me, tonight, this young man fell into the latter category – just curious, friendly and wanting to talk English. Once we got past the usual banter – “Where are you from? What happened/what did you do to your leg? Are you are on holiday?” questions, we had a nice talk as I walked home.

The conversation ranged from football (what the rest of the world calls football, and us Yanks call soccer, that is) – he was surprised a Yank knew anything about football, I think – to Thai culture vs. Vietnamese culture. He agreed that yes, if the American national team would play a more European/Central-South American style of football, we could probably win a World Cup. When I suggested we needed a British or European coach, he countered with a Brazilian or Mexican coach, to which I readily agreed that this would be as good if not better.

Before the football conversation started though, when he asked me how long I had lived in Viet Nam I had to explain that it was only four months this time, but that I had lived here before, both in HCMC and an hour north in sticks up in Bien Hoa (and I’m too lazy to conjure up the diacritical marks, so we’re doing to have to do without tonight)  with six months spent teaching in Thailand in between. I noted that I liked living in Thailand well enough, but that when it came to teaching English, I preferred Viet Nam for several reasons. He didn’t seem surprised by this and offered up the observation that Vietnamese were more friendly and open to foreign people than Thais, generally, with which I readily agreed.

But then he admitted the only place he had been to in Thailand was Pattaya. Then he said “Vietnam, we don’t have any place like Pattaya here.” I instantly thought “You’ve obviously never been to Vung Tau, young man,” but I kept my mouth shut. But then he added: “But Thai culture is much more open to that and accepting. Vietnam, it is too conservative for anything like that.” I agreed with that, as I think it is generally true – Vung Tau not withstanding.

But after we discussed Thai culture and football, we came to the point where we were headed separate ways; we exchanged names and I told him to keep an eye out for me in the park, as I often walk home that way – it’s a bit out of the way for me sometimes, depending on where I’m coming from, but if I’m coming from the backpacker ghetto, it’s the best way to avoid the touts, xe-om drivers and working girls on Pham Ngu Lao street.

This sort of thing happens all the time here in Sai Gon; it happened to a lesser extent up in Bien Hoa, where foreigners are still exceptionally rare and exotic.

Doogie Howser, making a thoughtful post on his electronic journal, long before the term blog would enter the popular lexicon.So yeah, that was a nice little counterbalance to lift my spirits after my therapy appointment this afternoon. Okay, I’m going to get all Doogie Howser here.

I guess in the larger scheme of things I don’t have much to complain about. I’m chasing dreams, living abroad in an exotic locale, and other than my Franken knee and teeth that are long over due for a trip to the dentist, I have my health. And my leg will eventually recover (I’m told) and I’ll get around to going to the dentist one of these days. So life is good.

And tomorrow when I feel like bitching about my leg maybe I’ll come back and read this post again.

And Thus Running (almost) Barefoot

My hairy legs and hobbit feet, encased in Vibram Fivefingers KSO Treks.So after most of the last year or so of not wearing shoes – teaching English sans shoes, doing a lot of walking and hiking in flipflops, Vibram Fivefingers or actually barefoot, etc. – I decided it was time to try barefoot running in the Fivefingers.

I’m no stranger to running, but we’ve been estranged, running and I, for some time; I haven’t run regularly (i.e., at all) since 2004. That summer after having completed AIDS/Lifecycle 3, I decided to supplement my 200+ miles a week on the bike with running (not having run regularly since college). I had it in the back of my mind back then that I wanted to try and do an Olympic-distance triathalon the following year. That never happened; too many distractions, such as moving across the country and training to be a whitewater rafting guide.

I kept up my cycling through all that, but the running tapered back off; eventually everything tapered off (except the spread of my gut) when my pusher got me hooked on World of Warcraft. Anyway, now that I’ve been getting back into cycling again, having used a bicycle to get around Bien Hoa, Viet Nam and Sai Gon, I thought what the hell, might as well start hoofing it again as well. I lost a lot of weight in my year abroad without even trying; not too keen on gaining it back now that I’ve returned to the land of cheese and saturated fat.

I’m pretty much starting from scratch though, even though I’ve logged a lot of miles on my feet over the past year. While I can’t claim to be in great shape by even the fattest (heh) stretch of the definition, I’m not a complete blob at the moment. So it’s been a happy surprise that after a week of very basic training, I’m a lot less sore than I expected to be. As I type this, my ankles are indeed pretty sore and my knees let me know about it when I walk up or down stairs, but it’s the good kind of sore: the-lactic-acid-buildup-because-you’ve-been-kicking-ass kind of sore, not the you-went-too-hard-because-you’re-a-noob-and-hurt-yourself kind of sore.

I know, I know, it’s actually not the lactic acid that causes the muscle soreness, but you know what I mean.

No Pain, No Gain: Tough it Out, Walk it Off

Ah, I can hear the echoes of athletic coaches past.

Of course ankle soreness is to be expected with new barefoot (or nearly barefoot) runners. The range of motion one experiences in the ankles is reportedly much greater barefoot than when shod in poofy-soled running shoes, so those little muscles and ligaments are relatively weak. After a few days of jogging on them – let’s be honest kids, I’ve been jogging, not running, to begin with – those little muscles and ligaments are, as the kids say, “all like – ‘Dude WTF?'”

While I anticipated this, I also expected the usual aches and pains that one experiences when one starts running after a long sedentary period of ass-sitting-upon (having been through this several times before). But having run three days this past week, the next day other than some lactic-acid-type soreness in the lower quads, the only soreness has been in my ankles.

Where’s the really sore knees and achy patellas? Where’s the shin splints? So far they’ve been non-existent. It’s all the more amazing to me because I’ve been jogging on pavement wearing my Vibram Fivefingers (the relatively non-stinky leather ones, fortunately). Granted I’ve been going really light – 10 sets of intervals of one minute of running with two minutes of walking, but still – no shin splints? I always get shin splints when I start running. I was all prepared with bags of frozen peas in the freezer, but so far – knocks on wood – I haven’t needed them.

The tibialis anterior, aka the meh muscle in my left leg that is always slacking. I would have thought my heels would be sore as well – I haven’t been running on the balls of my feet, but just trying to jog with a natural stride, landing somewhere between a heel and a mid-foot strike and rolling forward onto the balls of the feet and pushing off. I’ve found the best way is to not think too much about it, and let the foot do what Mother Nature designed it to do. I do try and make sure my knew is slightly bent though when my foot strikes the ground; this seems to be make a big difference.

I do still have problems with tightness and weakness in the long, skinny muscle that runs along the outside front of my lower left leg, but I’ve always had that problem. At the moment it’s as sore as my ankles. And shall we get technical for a moment? You know we are kids; nerdy is as nerdy does: I refer to the tibialis anterior muscle, which dorkiflexes dorsiflexes the foot.

Even when I was a young man back in high school, whenever I would start running in the summer in anticipation of football season, tightness in this muscle would bother me. I have to spend extra time warming it up before I run, even when I’m in shape and conditioned to it. Not sure why; I’ve never had a problem with this muscle in the other leg. No amount of conditioning ever seems to get this little ‘meh’-scle up to par with his peers. Meh.

Upon Further Re-dork-iflexion

Anyway, in light of this remarkably pain-free (re)start to running, I think whatever tiny, lingering doubts about running barefoot/pseudo barefoot I may have still harbored are hereby officially dispelled.

Of course, the trick is, now, not to get over excited and go out and blow the doors off one day because I feel good, and consequently injure myself or develop the aforementioned shin splints. In any event, I think I’m going to keep recording my progress here, just for self motivational purposes.

And in case anybody is wondering, I’m using the noob beginner’s program at Runner’s World to get back into the run of things. There is also a program over there for people who want to begin barefoot running, but I figure after the past year my feet are as conditioned as they are going to get by walking and hiking around; it’s time to hit the pavement, so to speak.

Maybe some day I’ll actually even condition the soles of my feet to run truly barefoot, and dispense completely with the Fivefingers or any other sort of foot cover. Maybe I’ll grow a shaggy beard then too.

In the meantime, to avoid the hotboxes that are Vibram Fivefingers when the Middle American summer truly sets in – I figure I’ve got about three more weeks before even running at night will prove too hot to wear them – I’ve invested in a pair of of self-made running sandals. I could have gathered the materials myself, but I’m lazy, so I ordered a kit from Invisible Shoe; it arrived earlier this week.

Once I get these made and log some miles in them, look for a review.

Pizza, Burritos and Guinness, Oh My!

Coming Home:
Reverse Culture Shock, Recalibration of an Expat Mind

Judy Garland: Jeffrey I don't think we're in Oz ... er, Viet Nam anymore!Forgive me Internet for I have been busy; it’s been more than a month since my last confession post.

What can I say? After 14 months abroad, being at home as been an endless distraction. I revel in the mundane of the every-day, middle-class life of Midwestern America; it has been a lot of reverse culture shock, but in largely good ways. My gods, the water pressure in the shower nearly knocks you down. And the water … it is so hot! Hot, hot HOT!

What’s more you can drink the water straight out of the faucet. And sometimes it falls from the sky, but not in drops, but in these strange and beautiful ice crystals, which sometimes accumulate enough to blanket everything in a whisper-sigh of white and silence.

What kind of crazy land is this?

Why, I can walk down the street, and no one pays me the slightest bit of attention; here I’m just another face in the crowd. I’m not the center of attention wherever I go; random passersby aren’t so astonished by my mere presence that their inattention knocks elderly women to ground. I’m just another nondescript citizen.

I like it; I can be the wallflower that I was meant to be.

But even after a month I still catch myself wandering out into the middle of the street in the middle of the block to cross, much to the aggravation of drivers who have little tolerance for my foreign ways. But do you know what happens when they come to an intersection here? Oh my various gods, they … they stop! If you’re turning left, do you know what the drivers behind you do? They either pass your on the right, or they actually just wait.

They wait for you to turn left! They don’t pass you on the left! And if you are the one turning left, you have to wait until no oncoming traffic is present! And get this – drivers generally don’t cut you off! No, really! It’s generally not done!

I know, huh? Crazy, whacky place this America is.

Pizza: Food of the GodsAnd the cheese! They have cheese here! It’s everywhere! In grocery stores, in restaurants, cheese! And cheese in burritos! ZOMG! Burritos! And pizza! And Guinness! My goodness my Guinness. I can actually walk. Walk down the street. Walk two blocks. Two blocks from here there is a bar. It is a bar that servers Guinness.

See what this means? I can have Guinness. I can drink Guinness whenever I want. It is only 1:20 am.; I could stop typing right now, put on my coat, walk those two blocks and have a Guinness. Because many of the bars here have Guinness. And they’re open – open until 2 a.m.

Astonishing. Simply astonishing. Think your Midwestern American city is sleepy? Try living in Southeast Asia for a year outside the tourist ghettos – your hometown will seem ridiculously cosmopolitan.

The Truth About Living Abroad: Is There One?

So what have we learned? We being the royal “we,” as in “I” – just because I feel in a third-person plural kind of mood. Giddy, even.

Well, I have learned many things during and from my time abroad. I’m still processing it all, which is somewhat confounded by the fact that I have to recalibrate my psyche to life in my home country and culture. As I’ve remarked before, I think I learned more about myself than anything else. There are certainly truths to be gained by living abroad for a year, but are they universal? I’m not sure.

In fact, the older I get and the more I travel and experience the world, I tend to think they are not; We may not go through life with blinders on, but we certainly do go through life with filters on, whether we realize it or not and whether we want to, or not. Your Viet Nam isn’t my Viet Nam; my Thailand isn’t your Thailand.

The truth is, we shall never be separated again, Guinness, my love.Show me someone who claims that they do see the unvarnished truth of a matter – be it the truth of what their neighbors are like or the truth of what their nation’s culture is like – much less someone else’s culture – and I’ll show you someone that is deluded and biased. That is not to say though that these other truths of other people are not of value or that we can’t glean something from them. As such over the forthcoming days and weeks – I have more time on my hands these days – I hope to elucidate my experiences and what they meant to me – my truths, if you will.

I’ll start with one big one: traveling abroad and living abroad are two very different things. Before I left I suspected it would be; now I know it to be true. Of course living abroad is also an incredible, amazing and  fun adventure. But at times, however, being a stranger in a strange land is a mental bitch-kitty, as my father might have described it.

But that’s all the truth and lessons learned for now; there will be more later.

In the meantime, let it suffice to say that I’m generally happy to be back. One can’t go home again, it’s true, but then half the fun of coming home is seeing what has changed and who has changed – and who and what hasn’t. And one doesn’t truly appreciate one’s own culture and country until you’ve been away a long time – there’s one of those subjective truths, to be sure. But I didn’t realize just how much I had missed some of the more mundane aspects of life here — logical, orderly traffic, pizza whenever the mood strikes, Guinness, fiber optics – the list goes on.

What Do I Miss? Cheating Death Daily

But it’s a two-way street (you’ll see how clever this bon mot is in just a moment). Every few days I catch myself thinking I’d love to get a bowl of phở and aCà phê sữa đá afterward; alas, I can’t do that.

The Boy Who Lived! (the urban bike nerd, Vietnamese edition)And I actually miss riding in traffic in Viet Nam on my bicycle, in much the same way that the seasoned veteran misses the adrenaline-fueled, danger-laden battlefield – happy to be home, perhaps, but the intoxicating lure of danger and violence beckons still. When I would get home from the grocery store or the bank in Bien Hoa, I would feel vibrant and exultant. I would look back on a thousand near-misses as I bobbed and weaved through the chaotic, exhaust-choked ballet of motorbike and taxi-cab death that was traffic that day (and every day) and think “Alive! gods, I’m alive! I live to ride another day! Victory! Hell yes!”

Traffic here at home is not nearly so crazy, and I grew up with it here, so I know how it works and what to expect. I don’t wonder if I’m going to buy the proverbial farm every time I leave the house. That’s good, yes, but it’s also not terribly exciting. When I get home, I’m just “getting home” – there is no laughing at having cheated Death once again.

Now see what I mean? How many people who have lived in Viet Nam – or , let’s broaden our scope and say, Southeast Asia – and now that they are back home in the West, would say that one of the things they miss most is riding a bike? Truth and experience – it’s subjective. But if I had to pick one thing I miss most about everyday life in Viet Nam, it would be that.

But then, that probably says more about me than it does about Viet Nam.

P.S. One of the aforementioned distractions is pictured here below; this post was composed on my new desktop rig. One of the common myths about Asia is that you can buy cheap-ass electronics. And you can – but there is a caveat. If you want leading edge technology – and I’m a nerd and I do – you’re going to pay more, at least in Southeast Asia. This same system you see being built here – Intel i7 950, Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti, 6 gigs of DDR3 RAM, coupled with a 24-inch monitor with 2ms response time – would have cost me several hundred dollars more in either Thailand or Viet Nam. I know, because I priced a number of systems and components a number of times, because after about six months I was jonesing for video games – not to mention Photoshop and 3D rendering. And this is actually a generation behind the leading edge.

This is also true for camera equipment – I know that because I’m a dumbass.

Getting my computer and gaming nerd on: building my own rig.

Depression, Banking, Cycling: A Day in the Expat Life

Urban Bicycling NerdToday was one of those days in paradise where I just wanted to take my toys and go home. Tuck my tail between my legs and skulk back across the planet. Today was one of those days where I just wanted to say “fuck it.”

Being prone to depression I’m not unfamiliar with such feelings; fortunately they are few and far between these days. But sometimes they do appear, like an unwelcome visitor whom you just can’t seem to find the courage to tell to go to hell. In retrospect I’m not sure why he chose to visit today — while this day has had its share of frustration, as far as a noob expat life goes it wasn’t terribly frustrating. And it came on the heels of a fun weekend in Sai Gon, so there’s really no reason for me to feel this way.

Lack of sleep? No. It’s true I didn’t get as much sleep as I normally do the night before, but still got about 5 or 6 hours. Sai Gon kept me up a bit, but I wasn’t in party mode, so no, that’s not it. Diet? Granted I skipped breakfast (which for me comes at lunchtime for normal people), and while that is enough to make me cranky or irritable, it’s not enough to make angry and depressed.

So why?

The fact that it’s Christmas time, a time of year that I associate with death and loss? The two-year anniversary of my father’s death is just nine days away (Mom’s, of course, comes in January — but she went into the hospital Dec. 3, if memory servers me). While it’s easy here to ignore the fact that it’s the dreaded Yuletide season, there are reminders though, even here. But Here in Viet Nam these reminders — Xmas muzak, Christmas trees, lights, etc. — are so far out of my normal Midwestern winter holiday context that it just makes me laugh.

So I don’t know.

Such is the nature of depression; it doesn’t need a reason. It’s days like these that I almost think that I should cave in and jump on the anti-depressant bandwagon, but that’s a fundamental line I just can’t bring myself to cross. start messing with brain chemistry and you start messing with who you are — what makes you, you.

Is tinkering with that worth having an even emotional keel? Again, I don’t know. No, that’s not true; obviously I don’t believe so. Maybe not with 100 percent certainty, but no, I don’t believe that it is. Even in my darkest days, I couldn’t bring myself to, despite my therapist’s suggestion to the contrary.

I’m not putting anyone else down for going that route — although I will say that I think the majority of people that use anti-depressants probably don’t need them. But it’s a deeply personal decision that no one else is in a position to judge or to say otherwise what you should or shouldn’t do. It’s jut not an option for me.

Anyway, whether it was the cà phê sữa đá, the bag of CreamO’s cookies, or the lengthy bike ride that has left endorphins and rubbery thighs in its wake, I feel somewhat better now. Just cranky now, I suppose.

Making an Ass out U and Me

Again, I’ve been gazing at my navel and my shoes trying to deconstruct this feeling — not sure why it’s here. Granted my trip to the bank to pay my rent ended up being this epic adventure that took several hours this afternoon. At one point I gave up trying to find this specific bank branch and tried to enlist the help of a cabdriver to take me to *any* Agribank branch, but couldn’t convey what I wanted.

So, it was back out on the bike, and this time I found it with no problems — I was actually quite close the first time, I just didn’t think it could possibly be down a dirt road. I was wrong — you’d think I’d learn not to color my instincts with Western bias by now, but apparently not.

Then the bank guard made a fuss, I’m not sure what about — whether it was the fact that I was parking my bike in the near-empty motorbike lot, or the fact that the bank was close to closing time, or what. This isn’t what set me off; I was in a depressed and angry mood before I set out this morning (morning being normal people’s afternoon of course).

But by this time, I wasn’t up for any hassle that I perceived to be bullshit, so I did what I would normally not do in Southeast Asia, because it usually doesn’t work — scowled angrily and asked in English with what was no doubt an angry voice: “What’s the problem? Why can’t I park here? No one else is here, and the bank is still open!”

I didn’t really think about what I was saying; I reacted instinctively from my gut — which is to say an angry and depressed gut.

This kind of reaction is usually the absolute dumbest thing you can do in this situation — confrontation backfires in Southeast Asia more often than not; culturally it’s just something people rarely do. It’s a loss of face for you and potentially for the person you are pissed at — and a very difficult thing for Western foreigners to grasp. Usually the sort of reaction I exhibited just makes things worse.

Normally in a situation like this I would smile and plead or feign helpless ignorance, if the other person knows no English and I can’t make myself understood with my pidgin Vietnamese. Or just shrug my shoulders and walk/ride away.

In this case, however, it worked. The bank guard backed off and left me alone — except for gesturing to the open side door of the bank. It may have been that he wasn’t trying to tell me not to park my bike, or trying to keep me from walking into the bank 20 minutes before they close — it may have been something else entirely; I don’t know.

Inside the bank, between the copy of my lease, pidgin Vietnamese and pidgin English, the English-to-Vietnamese dictionary on my phone and various hand gestures, I was able to hand over the cash and deposit it into my landlord’s account. Mission accomplished.

After this was done I actually felt rather elated — perseverance and self-reliance for the win. One has to take joy in life where one can find it. Now it was finally time for coffee and relaxing — and stretching my quads.

As I noted before, this wouldn’t normally be something that would make me depressed; it’s just the way things are when you live in a foreign country and haven’t learned much of the language yet (at least in my experience); the simplest tasks can become epic challenges. After a year though, I’m used to that — even expect it, chalk it up to learning, and move on.

While I was searching in vain for the bank, this attitude seemed to escape me for some reason, though. Usually I would have been happy regardless of whether or not I found the bank, as I was out riding around on my bike, and that’s almost always a good thing.

I, Am Not a Clown … I … Am … a Man!

John Hurt in The Elephant Man: he was a man, not an animal.Then, later in the evening something happend to me — twice — that used to happen in Thailand quite often, but fortunately doesn’t happen much here in Viet Nam. Twice I got the “hey foreign clown, entertain us” attitude from the locals.

I don’t think I’m going to elaborate too much just now; I’m going to save this topic for another time — I know I keep promising that; this dovetails into the whole Thailand vs. Viet Nam thing, the why-did-I-leave-Thailand-to-come-back-to-Vietnam subject that everyone always asks about.

But this post is getting long enough, and I have to settle down to work here soon. Let’s just say it’s one thing to be curious; it’s one thing to approach a foreigner and ask to speak English, or just to ask them where they are from and have a brief conversation. Even though It’s not something I would do, being more than a little bit of the misanthropic loner, I understand it and even welcome it, more often than not — I’ve made some great friends here who intially approached me in just that way.

But it’s another thing altogether to have someone jump up, get in your face so that you have to stop walking, and shout an exaggerated and obviously smart-ass “hello!” It’s another thing to have them and their friends laugh uproariously when you respond in kind — albeit stiffly, trying to be polite — because you got the crazy foreigner to respond and impress your friends.

Again, it normally doesn’t bother me, although at first it used to drive me bonkers when I first moved to Suphanburi, Thailand. It just goes with the territory, literally and figuratively. Besides, I realize it’s just ignorance (sometimes mixed with alcohol), not mean-spiritedness, usually.

But this evening, after this exact scenario happened twice in the span of 20 minutes, it really pissed me off — the bicycle-induced endorphins receded and the anger and depression came back. It was hard to walk away, that second time. Really … really … hard to walk away and not cause a scene at best,or do something that everyone involved would regret — me most of all — at worst. But I did.

Such is the life of the expat, I suppose.

Urban Warrior Bike Nerd, Viet Nam Edition: Facemask Protection

Urban Bicycling NerdBeen wondering wtf with regard to that picture above? I’ve been wanting to capture a photo of me in my facemask and helmet to see what I look like when I bicycle around Bien Hoa (the air quality is pretty chunky on the roads between the traffic and industry here).

You may be wondering if that mask actually does any good. I wonder too. You see a lot of Vietnamese people wearing masks when they ride their motorbikes, or are just walking around on a busy street — you see this all over Southeast Asia. All I know is, when I don’t wear my mask, my lungs burn — no joke.

Placebo affect? When I take off my mask in the middle of a ride, or when I get home, I’m immediately assaulted by a zillion smells — smells I didn’t smell with the mask on. So yeah, I’ll stick with the facemask.

I think the majority of the masks people wear do not do much good, at least in terms of particulates. After trying several of the cloth masks people wear here, I invested five bucks, or 100,000 dong — heh — in the industrial-grade mask you see in the photo. It actually provides a decent seal against your mouth and nose, once you get it positioned right. Not the most comfortable thing to wear, but if you fiddle with it long enough, you can get an acceptable fit dialed in.

Editor’s Note:

I actually wrote this a few days ago and decided to wait before posting. Whenever I write something like this, it seems it’s usually best to wait a few days. It’s not self-censorship as it is self-editing; sometimes these kinds of posts about depression or angst just make for crap writing, plain and simple. ‘

There are some posts on here, when I go back and read them, I cringe — not because of the private and personal nature of them, but the writing is just painfully labored. But after a few days, I deemed this one acceptable, so here you go.

Back to Being a Freelance Writer (Slacker). It's Deja-Vu All Over Again … in Viet Nam

Water Cooler Fenders Adorn the Giant BowerySo, after much lifestyle and career experimentation, I seem to be reverting to form. To wit: I’m freelance writing again, and I have found a regular part-time gig putting my writing and editing skills to work, as well as my WordPress and search engine optimization (SEO) skills. The pay isn’t great, but it’s more than adequate to live on and save a wee bit here in Viet Nam, and will let me concentrate on other endeavors that are more alluring but not as conducive to income, at least in the short term.

I kind of feel like I just picked back up many of the threads of my former life that I left behind 11 months ago – only those threads stretch across a hemisphere. This is more or less where I left off when I got rid of all my stuff and hauled ass at the beginning of the year. I even stay up late and sleep late, just like the good old slacker days, although I actually need to because of one caveat for my current gig: I need to work North American hours, so as to be available in real time, which I don’t mind at all. Typically I go to bed around 4:30 a.m. and get up anytime between 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. — right where I left off.

During the day I do what I do best – run around on my Giant Bowery, run errands, goof off and/or write while hanging around in a coffee shop. Slacker is as slacker does.

Today I actually spent the daylight hours (the few that I have) making some bike-punk alterations to my new bike and adding some fenders because the dry season is apparently never, ever going to arrive. This involved trips to a hardware store for zip ties and two local bike shops in search of old, used tubes. What kind of bike shop sells bikes but doesn’t sell tires or tubes? The kind down the street from me in Biên Hòa; I’m still trying to figure this one out from a cultural standpoint. In the end I bought new tubes from another bike shop farther down the street (trying to convey that I wanted old, worn-out tubes was too much for my nascent Vietnamese and well-thumbed dictionary).

Of course it didn’t actually rain today, for the first time in seemingly a million years. SouthEast Asia, you have me personally, Jeff Chappell – that’s two “p’s” and two “l’s” – to thank for single-handedly ushering in the dry season. You’re welcome.

Warning: Bike Nerdery Ahead. Proceed with Caution or Skip to the Next Subhead

I actually bought add-on fenders at a bike shop in Sai Gon (of course, the Australian-owned bike shop I go to down there was closed for renovations), as well as a cheap floor pump (this after asking at every bike shop in Biên Hòa). The pump barely gets an adequate amount of air into the tires, and I knew the fenders were likely going to need some Irish engineering in order to be mounted, but beggars can’t be choosers.

In the end, the front fender was a no go; the bolt used to attach it to the fork was too big, and the fender’s shape didn’t lend itself to a down-tube mounting with zip ties. The rear one I manged to mount after using the big-ass bolt from the front fender (it seems my 27.3mm seat post was too wide for the mounting bracket otherwise). I added an extension made out of a plastic drinking bottle (a water-cooler-sized one), however, to adequately cover the 700cc wheel.

I should note that I also used the two smaller bolts from the front-fender mounting bracket to attach said extension – so my purchase of the front fender was not in vain. I also used a piece of this water-cooler plastic to fashion a down-tube fender in the old-school way: zip-ties, holes and a couple pieces of cut-up tube to protect the frame’s paint.

No more getting caught in the rain and riding home with road-grit and grime up and down my backside – swamp ass, as I recall, is the term used in cycling circles — not to mention plastered all over my face. Of course, it won’t rain again until next June, now, but that’s fine. Either way, I win.

When I get around to wandering home, though, I’m going to see if I can lay hands on a pair of these Crud fenders made for road bikes. Sweet sickness, that.

Also, since I had the materials and tools lying around, I modified my Converse sneakers and converted them to slip-ons, replacing the shoelaces with long pieces of inner tube. How cool is that? Pretty comfy, too, not to mention convenient. Slacker is as slacker does.

Go to Instructables and you too can do this; it is pretty straightforward and my props to the dude who posted it over there. And it’s a good way to recycle an old tube.

You Can Take the Slacker Out of the Coffee Shop, but He’ll Just Find Another One (with Wi-Fi)

I’ve actually had a lot of topics I’ve wanted to discourse on here lately, but I’ve been preoccupied with creating yet another Website; I figure since I’m going to pursue freelance writing for the foreseeable future, I should separate out the personal blog from the professional stuff – resume and clips and whatnot. Plus, I’ve decided I need a more professional-looking place to repost some clips that are no longer found on Teh Intertubes.

Thus, the Gecko’s bark will soon get it’s own lil’ domain name, while JeffChappell.com will transform into something else yet again. I figure this is a good way to show off my mad WordPress skills, too; it’s amazing how many freelance writing gigs want experience with WordPress these days. JeffChappell.com Mark III will look very different from the Gecko’s Bark – which is kind of the idea.

Actually, while it’s a lot of work doing this (mostly getting all my old clips into the database and formatted correctly is what’s taking up the bulk of it – the “content” in today’s vernacular), it’s been fun – but then I’m both Web geek and writing nerd.

So what happened to teaching? It looks like that’s a no-go, at this point. I did have a private tutoring gig lined up, but when I factored in the commute time and lesson planning time, it just didn’t seem worth it. Better to put that time towards doing what I want to be doing.

While there were times that I really enjoyed teaching, at least certain aspects of it, I think at this point it’s safe to say that I tried it on for size, but it just didn’t fit. I like children, but I don’t want to teach a classroom full of them. I don’t have the skill set, and don’t want to put the time and the effort to acquire that skill set. I didn’t enjoy it that much. Even teaching adults – with the exception of the more advanced students – I simply don’t have it.

So, like I said at the beginning of this post before I got off on my bike nerdery, I’ve come full circle. It’s kind of ironic, because many people have remarked over the years – bear in mind I’ve been telecommuting in one capacity or another since 2001 – that I could do what I do anywhere in the world, as long as I had an Internet connection. Well, it’s not quite that simple but yeah, I can. I am.

I think that’s part of the teaching failure as well. It required just a little too much structure – and rightfully so – than I am capable of dealing with and providing, at this point in my game. I’m used to being fairly autonomous, working odd hours as it suits, etc. I made things work in Thailand, but I wasn’t happy – and back here in Viet Nam, as I’ve remarked before, the private language school was a much better situation, but at the end of the day, I still felt “meh” toward teaching there, once I had started.

Queue the Doogie Howser Closing Theme

Doogie Howser: Doctor, Proto BloggerSo what have I learned? Here’s some neat bullet points for your edification:

  • You don’t have to stick with what you know when you pursue a life/career change – but it helps to have a fallback/failsafe to something you know and you’re good at – and enjoy, at least to some degree.
  • If you’re a cycling nerd of some description, and you’re picking up stakes to a developing country, unless you’ve got money to burn, ship your bike over or bring it with you on the plane. Yeah, it will cost you, but the cost of finding the kind of bike to fit your rather specialized needs and tastes – in both dollars and frustration – as well as the gear that goes along with the cycling life, will add up to much more. Trust me on this one.
  • Same as above, but instead of “cycling nerd,” insert “gaming nerd,” and instead of “bike,” insert “gaming rig.” Everything here is cheap, yes – except for Western-style road bikes and leading-edge computer parts. Whatever you do, check out prices and import fees. I paid double of what my current ride would have cost me in the United States, because of Viet Nam’s import laws (and no, I don’t blame Viet Nam, it is a developing country after all). It looks like I will pay more if I buy/build a computer here, too, compared to what the same computer/parts would cost back home in the United States.
  • Once you’ve tasted freedom, it’s difficult to go back to the pen.

Eh, live and learn. I’m still new to this expat thing. While traveling abroad changes you for the better, I guess I didn’t realize that in many fundamental ways, I wouldn’t stop being me and should have taken that into account while planning out this open-ended escapade.

While foreign lands and cultures provide endless distractions, at the end of the day, I’m still several varieties of nerd and geek. Faced with the option of learning to ride a motorbike, always taking public transportation and taxis, or bombing around on a bicycle – I’ll opt for the bicycle. After 11 months away, I should have known that I’d be jonesing for video games – both console and PC/online.

But I can’t complain. In retrospect, 11 months ago the only thing I was really eager to change about my life was the fact that I wasn’t traveling/living abroad. So, problem solved, in that regard. I’m still a telecommuting, freelancing, coffee-shop lounging slacker – I’m just doing it now in an exotic locale that is also dirt cheap. Excelsior!

I’ve got the bike replaced, got the freelance gigs lined up, now I need to start thinking about a nerd-gasmic computer. As Apu Nahasapeemapetilon would say, thank my various Gods that I didn’t sell my camera equipment – I’d have to be replacing that, too. Speaking of which – camera equipment would segue beautifully into another anecdote about expat life – the $200 flash bracket — but I’ll save that for later.

Saddle Up, Effendi. We Ride!

Giant Bowery 72So rather than cave in and learn to ride a motorbike, I decided to stick with what I know (and wanted): the trusty bicycle. I think I probably could learn to ride, with little trouble, a xe may with an automatic transmission. But I just don’t feel like dealing with the hassle of it – plus, the air pollution is bad enough here.; I’ll take one for Mother Earth’s team. Of course life here may still eventually require the purchase of said motorbike, but for now, I’ll stick with this purchase (which cost as much if not more than a motorbike, thanks to the fact that it is imported, and Viet Nam apparently taxes the hell out of imports).

A foolish purchase, perhaps, in many people’s eyes. But as I bombed around Biên Hòa
today for the first time on it, I think it was an excellent purchase. It feels good to ride (regardless of the bike); I haven’t done so in a long time. The nice thing is, this bike is nimble enough and fast enough that it feels like what I’m used to – not like the horrible clunker of an indigenous mountain bike I rode when I first got to Viet Nam last January, and not the terrible piece-of-shite department-store-type bike I tried to ride in Suphanburi, Thailand (geez, that is an episode I need to write about sometime – that shop owner racked up some bad karma).

Anyway, bike nerd stuff is below. But first, some photography stuff. Look at the two photos just below the cut:  same, but different. The first is a photo from my Nokia 5800 phone; it has a 3.2 megapixel sensor and a Carl Zeiss lens. As I’ve noted before, I love this phone, but either the image sensor or the processing software is crap, compared to some other camera phones. Even with the flash as fill light, yuck. Of course there is no comparison between any camera phone and a good DSLR. The second picture is taken with my trusty Canon, with the flash bounced off the ceiling. Not even close, which is what I knew and expected – but I’ve been wanting to make a side-by-side comparison for awhile now, and this was an opportunity.

My New Ride

My New Ride, Non Craptacular

Now for the bike nerd stuff:

Anyway, a brief review of the Giant Bowery based on my first impression. In terms of street cred back home in the States this bike is a total poseur machine, to be sure. A single speed (with a fixie flip-flop hub should one desire) on a compact-geometry road frame (although it does have track dropouts) with, er, wannabe-track-bike bars on it – blasphemy in some cycling circles. I don’t think you’d ever see a messenger tooling around the Bowery in New York City on such a bike, unless perhaps he or she was trying for über irony. Fortunately for me, I’ve never been a slave to fashion or style. This is a man who used to ride with his roadie friends for hours on his Bianchi ‘cross bike (with road slicks) and his – gasp! Horror of horrors! – Camelbak (this is also a man who always had to stop in the middle of every long ride so his roady friends could fill up their damn water bottles). So yeah, I guess I’ve always been a heretic. You can take the boy off the mountain bike, but you can’t take the mountain biker out of the boy, or something like that.

Besides, the cycling culture here is virtually nonexistent, although I have occasionally seen a few Vietnamese guys riding around on expensive carbon fiber and wearing pro-team kits, both here and down in Sai Gon. Usually that would mean the worst sort of bike snob back home – beware the wannabe with too much money (I used to love dropping guys like that, back when I was in some sort of shape) – but team kits and expensive frames may not translate into the same thing here. Perhaps we’ll see one day when I’m out riding. If it does, I look forward to annoying them with the Giant Bowery; if it doesn’t, I welcome international bonding with my fellow bike nerds.

One snobbish thing in this bike’s favor, though – it’s probably the only one in Vietnam, perhaps all of Southeast Asia. The shop I bought it from imported it for someone who changed their mind.

Anyway, I wanted a single speed, because the roads here are flat, but I knew I wanted a western-style road bike in terms of the frame – the local brands of bikes all tend to be mountain bikes (sport bikes, as they are called here) and cruiser-type bikes. Not that I have anything against the cruiser bikes, but the ones here seem to be a bit flimsy for my big ass. Plus, when I stand on the pedals, I want things to happen – as in quick, responsive forward motion, and not bending the pedals and/or crank arms. Cruisers are also just too pokey, especially here. But having said that, I still need something beefy enough to handle my weight and the roads here.

Giant Bowery geometryThus, the 2010 Giant Bowery 72 comes to the rescue. I like the geometry of this bike, as it fits my odd torso. At 5’10” most bike fitters initially try and put me on bikes that are too large, say a 55 cm frame; apparently I have a long torso compared to my arm and leg length. So yeah, compact geometry works for me. The frame is actually a size small; check out the actual geometry measurements to the right (click it to big it) – yes, I’m actually comfortable riding around on this teeny bike! I probably would have been fine on a medium, too – but once I bumped up the seat a bit, this bike felt like home.

It’s not as aggressive as a track bike or a dedicated road-racing bike, of course, but that’s fine – this bike is for bombing around town and the odd fitness ride here and there. I’ve got the handlebar raised to a less aggressive position too; baby steps – as I get into better shape and my abs come around, then I’ll lower it back down.

Some reviewers have said it handles like a tank; I wouldn’t go that far. Yes, it’s not as nimble as a track bike or a racing rig, and for what I’m using it for, I wouldn’t want it to be. But it’s nimble enough to get around in traffic here; I found it plenty responsive enough for me. It’s at least as responsive as my Bianchi Axis crossbike I used to ride all over Hell’s half acre (as my dear old Dad used to say), so I’ve got no complaints. I didn’t notice any problems as far as ride feel either, but then again, I’m used to riding around on beefy aluminum. The tubes aren’t butted (which would be nice), but as far as I can tell, the welds and build quality are fine.

I imagine I might have to replace the rear rim at some point; we’ll see if Giant holds up where previous Taiwanese rims have failed – and this is back when I weighed under 180 lbs. I don’t think that saddle will be around too long, either, although it’s fine for now – nothing wrong with it, per se, for a stock saddle. The brakes and brake levers are adequate – like the saddle, fine for now. If I have this bike a long time, I may replace them at some point, but there is no hurry. The pedals are definitely short timers – as soon as I can lay my hands on some Time/ATAC cleats and pedals. This is the one thing I would have changed immediately, if I could have.

Not sure about those Kenda tires; there is all sorts of shite on the roads here. Of course if I flat a lot, they will have to go. Also not sure about the nuts on the axles. I’ve read that there is no reason not to use quick-release skewers, as long as they are not cheap and flimsy – that nuts on track bikes are just tradition. The Bowery has axle nuts and then some other kind of nut and bolt rig anchoring the hub in each track mount – I’m wondering if I could keep those and use a quick-release skewer in place of the axle nuts. On the other hand, if I can get some beefy tires – next mission: find a shop in Asia that carries Specialized Armadillos (and Time/ATACs) – and keep from flatting often, I’ll stick with the nuts.

Would I be nuts not too? Sorry, but you knew that was coming, didn’t you? I’m sure some friends were wondering why it took me so long to make that painfully obvious pun.

One more thing. I don’t know how much it weighs, but it’s relatively light, for as beefy as it is. I didn’t think to get it weighed in the shop – I thought about it while I was test riding it, then forgot when I got back. It feels a bit lighter than my Bianchi Axis was, even after I had slimmed it down with after-market parts. It doesn’t matter anyway; I’ve never been a weight weenie. According to the U.K. version of Giant’s web site, the Bowery 72 weighs 20.11 pounds, which feels about right – about a pound less than my Axis.

Here’s some more nerdery on the Bowery:

Frame: ALUXX-Grade Aluminum

Fork: CroMo, Alloy Steerer

Handlebar: Alloy Drop, Track Style 26.0

Stem: Alloy

Seatpost: Alloy, 27.2mm

Saddle: GIANT Racing

Pedals: Caged w/ Clips

Brakes: Alloy Dual Pivot

Brake Levers: Alloy Road

Cassette: 17T Fixed or Freewheel

Chain: KMC Z410A 1/2 x 1/8

Crankset: LASCO Track, 48T

Bottom Bracket Cartridge

Rims: GIANT Alloy, Double Wall

Hubs: Alloy High-Flange Track Style w/ Flip-Flop Rear Hub, Nutted 32h

Spokes: Stainless Steel

Tires KENDA Kriterium, 700×25

DWA: The Boy Who Lived

Not for the Faint of Heart ISo, I took my life in my hands today and took my first ride out of District 1 solo, all the way to District 7, which sounds farther than it is. It is actually only a few miles — about 5 or 6 kilometers, according to my cyclo driver friend Den. But the only option I had for a route was on major thoroughfares — imagine 3 or 4 lanes of road clogged with motorbikes and the occasional smog belching bus or truck, and the odd cab (and taxi drivers here drive like they do all over the world). Then consider the fact that this is Southeast Asia, where the rules of the road are different and largely unwritten.

Oh, and I forget the odd pedestrian and street vendor pushing their cart along the road.

In fact, you see people doing things all the time that would get them killed in a place like the U.S. But here, everyone does it and everyone expects it, and it works. The trouble for someone like me is, understanding is one thing, putting it into practice is another. For example, you’ll often see people running lights here, and turning left into oncoming traffic — but sussing out when you can do such things and when I can’t is where things get tricky. I suspect it’s just that I’ve been conditioned for years not to do such things; my instincts are the exact opposite of the locals. Furthermore, often times when I react to a situation and ride defensively, it’s usually the wrong thing to do — it’s much better to placidly ride on like the Vietnamese do, and let the other guy doing something crazy just do it.

Here’s an example. I was returning back from my destination — Golden Rose, a Western-style bike shop owned by an Aussie — and cruising down a side street; I was to the far right of the road with a few other cyclists while around us swarmed the omnipresent xe oms (motorbikes/mopeds, Vespas, etc.). It isn’t uncommon to see someone turn left from a side street off to one’s right, and rather than cut off all the traffic, they will just hug the left side of the road, riding into oncoming traffic. This happened right in front of me — a guy on a bicycle with a kid on the back. I reacted without thinking, trying to get out of his way, riding up on the curb — he did the same thing and we both had to come to a screeching halt (fortunately neither one of us was going that fast. And unlike back home, instead of insults and threats, we parted with nods and smiles).

But if I had just kept cruising along, maybe flowing just to the left around him — which is what Vietnamese people do in this situation seemingly without even thinking about it, perhaps with a horn honk thrown in — there wouldn’t have been a problem. I kept telling myself to relax and approach it with Buddha-like calm, accepting, observing and going with the flow whenever possible, maintaining my lane when someone does something unexpected (to me) — which seems to be the best course of action 99 times out of 100 here — but it’s easier said than done.

Don’t get me wrong though; I’m not knocking the Vietnamese; this kind of traffic is seemingly endemic to much of Asia (with Japan being a notable exception, where even the traffic jams are conducted in a calm, orderly fashion). This is their country and their roads, and the indigenous population understands the rules of the road, and it works for them. The problems arise when you drop in a foreigner who is used to a different set of rules — or doesn’t understand how traffic works seemingly with few rules. It’s not “western” traffic, and I’m sure there was more than one Vietnamese person today looking at me, shaking their head, and thinking “Aw jeez, DWA — Driving While American.”

And if you’ve ever lived in the Bay Area of Northern California, you can appreciate the irony here. As I’ve observed before, having first witnessed and blogged about traffic in China, it’s not that foreigners — in this case, Asians — can’t drive, as so many Americans might believe. They can and are perfectly competent — it’s just that driving is that different between the two cultures, and if you don’t realize that, this is when the chaos ensues. If you took an American chef and dropped in a Vietnamese kitchen, she might recognize certain utensils and ingredients, and some of the finished dishes going out the door to the dining room might look familiar — but that doesn’t mean she can cook Vietnamese food. The same goes for driving, or riding a bicycle, motorbike, etc.

But I will persevere. If I can learn to cross the street here — and there is an art to it; just watch how the locals do it — I can ride here. I’m encouraged by the fact that I came back in one piece today, and only had two close calls. I arrived in front of my hotel and threw up my arms and shouted “I’m alive! I did it!” which illicited several uncomprehending stares and unsure smiles. Pretty soon I will become one with the Vietnamese Traffic Absolute, losing my individual soul in the collective unconscious flow of traffic down Nguyễn Thái Học.