Monday, November 17, 2008

Biking Japan in the Rain, Heat, and Wind

Like a lot of my fellow ALTs, I ride a bike to school. It's a pretty sweet bike, complete with granny basket, and headlight. I like it.

I only have a ten minute bike to school. In fact, everything I need I can get to in less than ten minutes. All the rice fields tricked me. I'm not so isolated, really.

Like many kids born in the wasteland of strip malls and SUVs that is suburbia, I often fantasized about a world where you could get to where you're going without a car. The bicycle, like Robin Hood or Thoreau, was an inspiring ideal that fell short of my reality. Upon arriving in my town in Japan one of things I was most looking forward to was purchasing a bike.

The thing about riding a bike to school everyday is that you have to ride a bike to school everyday. While I appreciate the long over do exercise this necessity is subjecting me to, I appreciate it far more on mild days with clear skies. Biking in the rain, heat, and wind do not fall under the "mild" category. Just to clarify.

Biking in the rain:

By some gracious act of God I have not yet had to bike to school in the rain. One tricky morning I woke up to thunderstorms. I raced to get ready, put my purse and school bag in plastic bags, and get my amazing raincoat on. I was running late because that's what I do plus the added time to weather-proof myself and my belongings and so I had to peddle like crazy. Peddle like crazy as the birds sang into the clear blue skies that broke 30 seconds into my ride. My amazing raincoat is really, really protecting and as such there is no breath-ability to it. In a downpour, great. In the sunshine as you're pumping your legs as fast as they go, not so great. Sweaty.

I have had to bike home in the rain several times. This doesn't bother me so much because once I'm off work I don't mind if my clothes get soaked. This is not to say I enjoy biking in the rain. I don't really even like walking in the rain.

Some highlights: zipping up my neon green raincoat complete with hood to the laughter of both teachers and students, a raindrop with great aim blinding my one eye for half the ride home, and near death while I tried out (the one and only time) holding an umbrella while biking. Though technically illegal, this move is universal among Japanese bike riders from the young to the old. It takes practice.

Biking in the heat:

During the first month and a half I was biking to school in 90 degree heat with the humidity at about 600% (if someone tells you there is no such thing as 600% humidity I invite such a person to spend August in Japan). Even a slow-paced ride produces a waterfall of sweat from the pores because despite the breeze biking creates, the sweltering humidity encases you.

Now, allow me to introduce you to the sad fact of my mornings: I am always running late. Especially during that first month when I was adjusting to a hugely different time zone and a new, lonely house I had a need to turn that 10 minute bike ride into about a 6 minute one. It can be done. The consequence is, however, arriving to school out of breath and pouring sweat while all around the lovely Japanese teachers don't so much as glisten sweat.

Biking in the wind:

Compared to Chicagoland winters, the winter weather of my region in Japan is super mild. It'll rarely fall below zero degrees. However, I never biked anywhere back home. For recreation, yes. As my means of transportation, not so much. So, while I am used to the type of cold that freezes your nose hairs and knocks the breath out of you I am not familiar with biking in anything besides gorgeous weather.

On a windy, cold day after hurriedly doing my hair, taking too much time to try to get it right, I step outside and am immediately assaulted by the harsh winds. The hair's gone. Soon to follow is the make-up: add these cold winds to the wind I create while biking and my eyes water from the time I get on the bike until I arrive at school. So I fond myself in a vicious circle these days: running late because I take too much time getting ready only to mess the whole thing up as I bike in the howling wind. Something about mountains and valleys and the sea.

I'll probably miss these bike rides when time here is done.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Some Perspective as the Economy Rumbles

A couple weeks ago my school gave me a recontracting form. This misleadingly simple-looking document represents a big decision. One that I won't have to make until February 6th, thankfully. I had always intended on this experience being a one year deal but am now on the fence in a big way. As I told someone recently, I'm going to put the thought of another year in Japan away in my mind and see if time persuades me to either side.

Recontracting was a major topic of discussion as I hung out with other ALTs this weekend. Many have decided "yes" or "no" but equally as many are in my position. Though this is not a major factor (as it shouldn't be) the economy in our respective countries and how much money we're making now has been brought up many times. The fear of a recession, another Great Depression, loom in most of our minds. With these conversations fresh in my mind I stumbled upon a news story today at school that was ironic and prophetic in many ways. The story takes place as the economy rumbles, stops and starts.

A contractor was working on a house and found a stash of money hidden inside a wall dating back to the Great Depression. $182,000 to be exact. At a time when banks were drowning, families homeless and starving, a man hid almost $200,000 in the walls of his house for a rainy day that I guess never came for him.

As if that measure of greed and lack of compassion wasn't prophetic enough to give us some perspective on our present condition, the reason this find is even making news is because the contractor and the homeowner were never able to reach an agreement on how to split the money. This feud went on so long and was so heated that a newspaper picked the story up. Once it appeared in the news, the descendants of the Depression-era hoarder wanted in on the loot.

The home owner, who owns at least one other property that was recently foreclosed, spent or lost much of the money. The contractor has lost business, he says, because of the negative view many clients now hold of him. (Click here for the full story).

Wow. The contractor said it best when he explained that finding the money "was a neat experience" and "something that won't happen again." The rest that followed, though, was regrettable he said. That's a good reminder to relish in the simple, extraordinary moments that grace our days.

It's a good reminder to keep some perspective on the value of money as the economy rumbles.