*Sometimes the muse does not give me a complete poem, but just a single line or two. When I write about love- that most over-explored of subjects- it's hard not to sink into cliches. But perhaps among the dross you'll find a nugget or two.
When I was a young and foolish man, I set out without experience or training on a long solo bicycle trip north from Huntsville to Timmins- a distance of about 700 kilometres. I borrowed my brother's mountain bike and packed it with a small tent and sleeping bag, camping stove and clothes. After the first day I stopped to buy a couple other necessities: most importantly, extra padding for the seat.
It was a grueling, punishing experience the first few days, but I've never gotten so fit so fast in my life. In Sudbury, after about 4 days of travel, I stopped at Science North. They had a huge satellite photo of the area north of Sudbury, where I was headed. Where there were houses, roads and people was lightly coloured- but the area I was going through was a vast dark area- only a single, thinly traced highway ran through it. You sort-of had to squint to see it. I was reminded of Conrad's story about the "Heart of Darkness". It sent a chill down my spine. At last- true wilderness!
I camped at Halfway Lake, a small provincial park north of Sudbury. I was the only one at the campsite, on a small pond. A beaver swam by and gazed at me curiously, his little nose poking up above the water. I guess he figured I wasn't much of a threat, because he swam away without slapping his tail. The next day I set off early, with my first water break at a sign which read "No service station for 90km." Now in a car, that's nothing- less than an hour's drive, at highway speeds. But on a bicycle, that's a hard day's slogging- especially as it was more uphill than down, as I approached the height of land dividing the Arctic and Great Lakes watersheds.
However, as I soon found out, what the sign should have said was "No ANYTHING for 90km." No houses, no sideroads (excluding logging roads), no sign of human life whatsoever, except for the highway itself, a long line of telephone poles, and the occasional vehicle whizzing by. Just lots and lots of trees, some lakes and rivers, and solitude.
Pedaling my way to the top of a kilometre-long hill I looked ahead, and back, and saw only a distant truck, speeding away. I looked away from the highway, in either direction, and saw hill after hill to the far horizon, covered in forest. A lake over to the left, a day's hike away. It was a land without the footprints of man. I stared entranced for I don't know how long, turning in a slow circle, my bike abandoned. Then I first heard, then saw, a tiny car approaching. And I reluctantly got back on my bicycle, tucked my head low, and pedalled down the hill, toward the height of land.
It's surprising how quickly the extraordinary becomes commonplace. When I first arrived in China, I walked around thinking in awe: "I'm in China! I'm actually living in China!" But before long the daily routine and challenges of my job drove that thought out of my mind, and when I did think "I'm living in China!" it was with surprise that I'd actually forgotten. As the novelty wore off, the petty annoyances of living in a foreign culture where I was constantly the centre of attention, where I couldn't get my favourite foods, and I couldn't communicate, made me almost wish I hadn't come.
But then, walking out of a school building where I'd been talking to students, one cold winter night, I suddenly looked up and saw big wet snowflakes drifting down. The snow frosted the trees, the ground, and the bridge across the frozen river. Grey old Taiyuan was- if only briefly- beautiful! As the snowflakes melted on my cheeks and hands, I thought "Snow in China!" And all the wonder of my first day there returned.
How does a country like the United States go from a US$200 billion dollar surplus to a US$500 billion dollar deficit in just 4 years? Is it simply bad fiscal management? A few unexpected expenses, caused by 9/11 and the "War on Terrorism" combined with over-zealous tax-cutting for the rich? Or is it something more sinister? I don't usually buy into conspiracy theories, but I first started to wonder about this when George Bush did a tour of Africa a few years ago (right after the invasion of Afghanistan) and promised to spend tens of billions to fight AIDS in Africa. I think it's a worthy cause, don't get me wrong, but this had never been a priority for Republicans before, and with a mounting deficit, I wondered why suddenly now? Was he actually trying to run up a bigger deficit?
Consider this: U.S. Treasury bonds ('T-bonds' as they're commonly called) are the default 'safe' haven for global investors/speculators who are worried about risky stock or currency markets. When things get jittery, they buy up T-bonds. American taxpayers pay the interest, and the American government guarantees them. In effect, it's a way of transferring money from the average American to wealthy American and foreign investors. Of course, this is true of any country which has a debt (ie. 192 of 193 countries in the world). But U. S. debt dwarfs the debt of all other countries- if global investors couldn't buy T-bonds they would lose a source of easy, risk-free profit.
Then I remembered, from an American history course I took in college, that such a pro-debt lobby did in fact exist, in the early 19th Century, when Americans were debating setting up a national bank. Their argument was much the same as the one I've stated above: they thought investors should have a safe place to put their money, with the public paying them interest. Naturally such an idea was not popular, except among the rich.
Ironically, Bush is now using the enormous deficit which he himself created as an excuse to cut social programs for lower income Americans, all in the name of 'balancing the budget' -which he seems to have no intention of doing.
If a pro-debt lobby does exist in the U.S. today, it is obviously one that works behind closed doors, very quietly and informally. If the American public knew about it, there would be quite a scandal. But those who stand to lose from a balanced U. S. budget are the wealthiest (and therefore most powerful) people and institutions in the world. It would be surprising if they stood by and did nothing to try to unbalance the American budget.
You may notice, on your ATM card, a little logo that says 'Plus', which they tell you can be used at any ATM anywhere in the world which also has the 'Plus' label. My CIBC bank card also has this logo. Does it work at 'Plus' machines in South Korea? No. The card works fine in Canada. I thought maybe it was just my card, or maybe I had the wrong kind of account (chequing). So I asked my Canadian friends here, and they've had the same problem. Some have been able to use it, with some machines. Some could use it here, but not in Japan. And so on. It's a very iffy system, which may or may not work, apparently depending on a combination of your bank, your card, your type of account, the machine you put your card into, whether or not it's Tuesday, and the latent atmospheric humidity.
Credit cards, on the other hand, never seem to fail. So a word of advice: if you are travelling abroad, take a credit card, traveller's cheques or cash- but don't rely on your 'Plus' card. (Unless you like being stranded in a foreign country without money...)
P.S. I know I'll get comments from some people who say "I never had a problem with my card in [insert country's name here]." Good- you were lucky. That's my point- sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It's just not reliable.