Sunday, 12 October 2014

A WHIP FOR HUẾ


Riding a bicycle around a foreign city presents many challenges. The language of road-use differs from place to place: the toot of a horn, the flashing of lights, the nuance of a suggested manoeuvre... these are not universal, they are idiosyncratic... or to stretch the linguistic metaphor, they are idiomatic. I am a foreigner trying to fit in: my tongue is tied, my accent is dreadful and when I say the wrong thing I can be crushed beneath the wheels of a Bia Huế truck.

The roads I negotiate (usually) with the single-speed beast above. It's a different animal to what I'm accustomed- it has no cross bar, has heavy mudguards and is completed by an only very slightly useful basket on the front.Some time has passed since last I rode free-wheel and I'm rediscovering its charms: the peripheral (though perpetual) threat of death on the road is tempered by the joy of coasting through traffic or accelerating around a bend on a slight incline. Sun setting over the Perfume River in rush hour, wind in my hair... I revel in clichés as a pig in shit.

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Yet the emphasis on steady flow as opposed to stop and start coupled with the anarchistic approach to traffic management (rules are there to be obeyed... if it suits you to obey the rules) somehow makes Huế seems like the ideal place for fixed gear cycling. I miss my bike. I wrote a short piece about my 'discovery' of fixed gear cycling a few years back (curiously, it concludes with a similarly clichéd take on the experience of cycling over a bridge) and still believe that riding fixed is an excellent method of topographical investigation. The yellow velo died a death, I'm afraid (my collar bone was fractured in the incident) but was replaced by a bomb-proof trick/track hybrid that I have abandoned in Babylon.

My failure to investigate Huế's geography in a meaningful way is in part a consequence of my adoption of the bicycle as primary means of getting from a-b. Getting from a-b... there's the problem, right? With fixed ideas of where I begin and end, the space and time in between become nothing more than a series of minor obstacles. Fleeting moments of sublimation (cruising over the Perfume River, wind in my beard) are just that- ephemeral, transitory... passing. They occur when the traffic opens up, the roads widen, the sky opens and the threat of imminent annihilation seems to pass- or at least seems irrelevant.

Whilst cycling, the experience of the city is nested within the experience of the ride. Conversely, walking nests the experience of the walk inside the experience of the city. Previously I had considered these differing experiences in purely spatial-temporal terms: the volume of space traversed increases at the expense of the time needed to appreciate it, thus the city becomes a backdrop to the experience. Having eschewed pedestrian transport  since arriving in Huế an awareness of the social aspect of the derive has grown, one I had not really considered before. A walk through a city that lives and breathes possesses a soundtrack comprised of human voices as well as the voices of the machines they manipulate. Half-heard eavesdropped conversations and the sing-song chants of pedlars are augmented by direct exchanges between the walker and the others... polite exchanges, the kissing of teeth... sometimes even genuine conversations. I have been remound of the interactive element to psychogeography. It is an active, not a passive pursuit. That said, it's worth noting that conversation is not precluded by the mode of transport one chooses to use: often am I accosted by interested locals as I pedal to work, riding their scooters beside mine and asking a series of questions about what I'm doing and where I'm going.

When you're the stranger who's come to town, it's impossible to be A Man in the Crowd. Ultimately, I'm a tourist... and I will forever be marked out as such by my height and complexion. My pursuit of efficiency on the road, racing from job-to-job, has all been part of a semi-conscious desire to blend in to get on with things. This is not how a city is appreciated or investigated. Perhaps we all need to start behaving more like tourists.

I'm going for a walk,  

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