Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Reverse culture shock

I underdressed, again. Say what you will about the lack of winter in coastal California, but when the air temperature is 41 degrees and a brisk 15 mph wind is whipping along a bald ridge, it's cold. But of course the California sun has lulled me into a sense of complacency, so here I am, up on Black Mountain with the Fatback, trying to slap some life back into my rigid fingers, again. If Fatty Fatback had a personality he'd probably be silently laughing at the poetic justice of my discomfort, trapped as he is in a land without snow.

I steamrolled over some rocks and launched down the fall-line, mowing over clumps of grass on a faint deer trail. The cold wind tore through my meager layers and chilled the beads of sweat on my skin. I mashed the pedals as the contour turned upward, and topped out with an even better view of sunset. Wispy clouds, golden haze, and the distant mirror of the Pacific Ocean reflecting fire from the sun. Squinting into the sunlight, I failed to see a herd of grazing deer until they erupted from the grass mere meters away, then raced down the ridge. I scanned the sloping meadow for a good place to drop toward Indian Creek but thought better of it, because it is illegal to be in this park after dark, and this is still highly-regulated coastal California. No more off-roading today; the sunset view would have to do. I touched my frozen feet to the ground and smiled, because it was worth it.

The reverse culture shock I'd been experiencing since I returned from Nepal was finally starting to fade. I think most people who travel through a developing nation experience this to some extent. At first there is relief ("Wow, look how smooth these roads are. So strange not to have motorcycles buzzing around on all sides as diesel trucks bear down on you.") Then there is the sense of novelty. ("Wow, there's so much fresh produce in this one store, and I don't need to haggle with a guy pushing a cart full of tangerines.") Then comes guilt. ("Why do I have so many bicycles? I met a young man in Nepal who walked three hours to work because he couldn't afford any other form of transportation. I should start a charity that raises funds to give sturdy work bicycles to families in Nepal.") Then comes a kind of cultural despair, which can happen when you return from a place where people do so much with so little, to a place where you can't go to Target for cat litter without finding yourself fully submerged in a mad holiday frenzy. ("I watched men building a stone levee with their hands, hoisting huge boulders and hammering them into place, in an effort to divert monsoonal flooding that had killed several people in their village. That was the human spirit. This is insanity.") Then, finally, acceptance. ("I have so many opportunities. I'm free to ride my fat bike any time I want. I really am lucky to live here.")

So I returned to my routine, still grateful for my opportunities back home, still enthralled with the landscape and people of Nepal, still disturbed by holiday excess. Normal life returned to me quickly, but I did spend more time thinking how I could better strike a balance in my own world, and how I could find a way to add a few of my own stones to that life-saving levee. Not because I believe Nepalis — or frenzied holiday shoppers — need saving. People can do a lot with a little if they have to. And people with a lot can do a little if they want to. I can do a little. I can contribute where I can, and on the homefront, I can focus my energy toward the world I want to live in. Be the change I want to see, so to speak.

Bicycling is always a great place to start.